A 50 minute multi-media DVD, with hundreds of images, detailed narration, music from original field recordings, and informative maps.
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Every effort has been made to preserve the feel of the original travel experience. Apart from the digital assembly process itself, materials have not been augmented in any way from their original form.
All pictures were taken with a Nikon camera. They were scanned, and then edited with Photoshop in 2005. All maps were acquired during the trip itself.
All musical excerpts are tape copies of field recordings made by the villagers. They were digitized, and mixed with the narration in 2005 using Adobe Audition. No effort was made to enhance the quality of the recordings, apart from applying a noise filter to reduce tape hiss.
All narration is excerpted directly from a much longer work, written in 1987. This work, in turn, was adapted (with only minor revisions) from my original diaries of 1986. Any knowledge of China (or knowledge of expository writing technique) that I may (or may not) have acquired over the intervening years has not been incorporated.
The presentation was assembled in 2006 with 321 Studios’ DVD X Show. Automatic audio compression in this program affects the fidelity of the soundtrack.
All Contents ©2006
I have exhibited my China pictures several times over the years. By far the most thrilling exhibition was at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, 1990. There, I was tremendously honored and thrilled that JULIUS SHULMAN spoke at exhibition opening
From my crouch position over the squat toilet, I could peek out the tiny crack of the slightly ajar opaqued window. Stuck in place, I could not get a fix on any one scene rushing passed me. Smears of green and brown, green and brown, was all I could make out of the hills and rice paddies through which the train was traveling. The Chinese enjoy telling foreigners the old saying which likens the superficialities of touring to the viewing flowers from horseback. If there is one thing I'd learned, having lived in China for six months, it's that the Chinese tend to romanticize the ordinary. But if one is prepared to strip away the poesy, he might discover the truth had been there all along. Whether flowers from horseback or rice paddies from toilets didn't really matter, as my overcoming the distance in either situation required the same solution: getting off my ass and looking up close.
Having just completed my first term of teaching English in Shanghai, I was heading out to explore China as thoroughly as my seven week vacation would permit. I was in the hard-sleeper section of the train headed for Guilin, in the Guangxi Zhuang Nationality Autonomous Region. If you are a foreigner, especially one traveling alone, it is standard policy for your berth companions to foist mounds of food upon you: hard-boiled eggs, sugar cane, pickled vegetables, glutinous rice balls. "Here, eat this!" says the man sitting in the bunk across from me. He hands me an apple he has just peeled. I call it a "berth", but really, "nook" is more correct. The hard-sleeper cars are composed of open cubbies with six beds each, stacked three per side. The top bunks are smack up against the ceiling, leaving little room even for bending one's knees. Given my teacher's salary, the only economically feasible alternative to hard-sleep is hard-seat, in which the masses share their meager sitting (and standing) space with bundled vegetables, live chickens, sacks of fish. Hard seat is tolerable during the day, but overnight it's murder. Natives are somehow able to "go fishing," the Cantonese term used to described the bobbing head of someone just barely sleeping in the forced upright position that the right-angled hard seats demand. Foreigners prefer their fish laid out before them.
As we approached Guilin, the mountains could be seen off in the distance. Probably every foreigner's vision of China includes these poetic peeks which burst out of the ground so completely unexpectedly, you wonder if maybe God made a mistake. After staying overnight in the city center,
I boarded a bus to Yangshuo, a little town a few hours south of Guilin, right in the heart of the hills. After booking a room, I rented a bike, and off I went into the countryside. The mountains shoot straight up, and just as fast shoot straight down. A few kilometers out of town I turned off the main road down a dirt path into a village, a small array of mud homes that from a distance looked neat and tidy, but up close revealed disarray and bottomless poverty. A couple of fellows--a tall, rather gaunt man with a bad eye, and a younger stockier boy--cautiously approached me and invited me into their home. We stepped through the doorway into a dark, bare place with nothing but a light bulb and a pot or two for cooking. The younger one said they were very poor and had absolutely nothing. I believed him. I looked around and saw nothing. But still, they treated me to lunch. As we sat on their little wooden stools, they made up some cabbage and meat and fat in a wok over a little fire in the darkness. It was almost so dark I couldn't see, yet was only midday. "How much is your watch?" the one-eyed fellow asked me. "How much is your camera?" "What are your name's?" I replied. "I'm called Zhou," said One-Eye.
There exists a strange lack of distinction between inside and outside in these homes. Physically, it is unambiguous. Houses are arranged symmetrically. One enters the front doorway into a main room of rough concrete floors and bare wooden walls. Off to either side are rooms, two on each side, also symmetrically arranged. The kitchen is one of the back rooms, while the bedrooms are in front. A banana peel might get thrown right on the floor. Chickens cluck in, cluck out. Fires get built smack on the floor. Men spit anywhere they please. I asked Zhou how he passes his time, what he does. He said "nothing." I asked "how do you eat?" He said he grows food. "If you grow food, you eat. Right?"
Nine o'clock the next morning I took my rented bike out of town about an hour into the mountains. I took a small paved road off the main highway for a mile or two, and then left that for a dirt path from which a village
could be seen in the distance. As I arrived in the village, a group of kids yelled "hello," "Okay," and "bye bye," instantly betraying their later claims that I was the first foreigner to ever arrive in their village. The kids started dancing around in excitement, running away if I so much as looked at them. I decided to ease them into my presence, and so sat town on the stoop of a home as they danced around and taunted me. As we all grew weary of their kongfu kicks and squealing, we began to talk. "How old are you?" I asked. "I'm nine!" "I'm eleven!" "Do you go to school?" "Big nose! Big nose!"
"Big Nose" is a common, if not very flattering reference to those whom more diplomatic Chinese refer to as "Our Foreign Friends." Rarely did the Chinese discern that my nose is especially Semitic in shape; we all pretty much look alike to them, it seems. As I stood up to head deeper into the village, several of the kids followed me.
As I turned a corner, I came upon an outdoor feast. What must have been the entire adult population of the village was there. Suddenly everything stopped as all eyes focused on me. A man ran over, brought me to a table, sat me down. "Here! Eat! Please sit!" Set before me was sliced meat, sliced fat, angel's hair, clear noodles, bready noodles, tofu. Also, I was served some rather potent rice wine. My wining and dining companions began asking about American eating customs ("Do you use chopsticks in America?"), and diet (In America you eat bread, not rice, right?"). In a society where the same word is used for "rice" and "food", there is no reason for the Chinese to assume that all other nations' diets are not similarly constrained. We would stop intermittently to "hejiu"--drink, or "chicai"--eat. Perhaps a hundred people left their meals to stare at me, when all of a sudden, a musical procession came through--firecrackers went off! The processioners were playing oboe-like double reed pipes with bell horns, as well as cymbals and drums. They were wearing white headbands, as were some of the villagers. I asked if someone had died, and my companion said yes. I had interrupted a funeral, yet everyone seemed so concerned that I eat and feel welcome. Even after the ensemble seemed to be finished playing, and after they sat down and began eating, whenever someone set off fire-crackers, they'd immediately stop in mid-bite and break out in music.
But skies were threatening. I bid "Bye byes" all around, and down the path I trekked to the small road and my bike. I road to the village of Fuli, a little market town on the way back to Yangshuo,
where although the barber insisted he was unable to do a decent job ("I can't do it! Go back to Yangshuo, they know how to do foreign styles!"), I got a haircut--a decent one, at that.
In the morning I bought a ticket for the next day to a little place called Toupai, en route to the Jinxiu Yao Nationality Autonomous County. At my hotel, a Japanese called Komatsu told me this region had just open to foreigners, and we decided to go together. But I still had a whole day of exploration ahead of me right here in Yangshuo.
Once again, I rode off into the hills.
I found a dirt road that took me through a pass. I came to a little village in the hills called, I later found out, Lijia.
The kids of Lijia were very dirty, dressed in near shreds, and many were barefoot. I sat down with some folks, and after a bit we finally started talking to each other. Off we went for broccoli, noodles and "baijiu"--white alcohol. These people were very laid back, not asking lots of questions, just enjoying the food and drink. They said they were not Han Chinese, but Zhuang--China's largest minority nationality. This might explain their more relaxed ways, as the Han have something of a reputation for there formality. The Zhuang language, related to Thai, and only distantly related to Chinese, sounds rather like Vietnamese, only choppier.
Most of the houses in Lijia were new, and both my hosts were putting the finishing touches on their respective homes. Pressed earth walls, gray brick doorways, with a little fancy latticework above seem to be the distinguishing factors of Zhuang homes in this area.
After eating, and getting a little tour of the construction, I took some pictures. We swapped addresses so I could send them their photos, and I departed for Yangshuo.
The bus to Toupai took me passed many of my old Yangshuo "haunts". Komatsu and I were sitting right up in front and caught every near-miss and every horn honk that cut like a knife; it's Chinese law for all drivers to honk whenever approaching a pedestrian or smaller vehicle. We went through lots of little villages and some reasonably sized towns, one in which we stopped. I was able to explore for a few minutes. All these people buy are cigarettes and alcohol. Or maybe it's just that that's all there is to buy.
On the map, Toupai looks like a real town, but in actuality, it's just a dusty crossroads. So here we were, Komatsu and I, in the middle of nowhere. Some buses were going our way, but none stopped for us. Eventually we hitched a ride with a truck to our next crossroads, Tongmu, thirty kilometers down the road. We were still thirty kilometers from our final destination.
We attracted quite a crowd waiting at that intersection, waving madly at any vehicle going our way. Kids gathered round. People seemed much more interested in me than in Komatsu, for obvious reasons. The Japanese do not provide the exotic element we Big Noses do. Komatsu hardly felt slighted. A middle-aged woman came up to me. She asked me where I was from. "America." "Oh really! My son lives in San Francisco! I'm a party-member you see. If you want a ride to Jinxiu, just wait a little while and my van will be coming through."
We waited. And we waited. Our attention sometimes drifted from the road when little kids came and set off firecrackers just inches behind us, or some drunk would come up to us and say something indecipherable. Within earshot of a teenage boy who had been hanging around, I asked Komatsu if he'd noticed where that party woman had gone off to. "Oh, she was just an old liar--I didn't believe her for a second. She must have gone on home," said the boy. Well, there you go, just a big talker. It was now after five o'clock, and beginning to get dark. We decided to give up for the day, and catch the early bus next morning. We checked into the town's lone hotel, had some dinner--the local specialty was mifen, rice noodles in broth--took a walk, and retired early.
At about nine o'clock, as we were both drifting off to sleep, we heard some keys jingling outside our door. Suddenly, the door opened, and the light went on. Two blue-jacketed cadres shuffled into the room. What had we done wrong?! We popped our heads out through our respective mosquito nettings. "We heard you were trying to get to Jinxiu. We're from the local government there. Our van is waiting downstairs. Collect your things and we can go. Ok?"
Before we even realized what was happening, we packed up our things, got our money back for the room, and loaded into the back of their van. Off we went down the road into the mountains beyond. As we were bumping over the mountain road in the dead of night, I turned to Komatsu, "I don't know about in Japan, but this would be unheard of in America! I didn't even ask to see any I.D., and here we are letting them take us from our beds in the middle of the night, driving us off into the mountains!"
Actually, neither of us had any doubt that these people were exactly who they said they were. It's just the way China works.
An hour and a half later, we passed a roadblock and emerged into a valley lit by the night lights of Jinxiu. It's a small city, where before 1949 it was just a small valley. We pulled into the hotel, and they set us up in a very decent double room, complete with broken toilet and filthy bathtub.
At seven the next morning we were awakened by a pounding on our door. It seems we had to register with the local police. The young fellow at the door was educated in Nanning, the provincial capital. He was to be our guide for the duration of our stay. It seems we didn't have a choice in the matter. He had a rather incongruous urban air about him. Neat, well-groomed, articulate. But Jinxiu was his home, and so it goes...
He told us we are the first foreigners to come to Jinxiu
since it's been "opened." Actually, a U.N. team had come about twenty years earlier, and last year an Australian made his way in, but he was sent right back out to the main road. It seemed they wanted to make a good impression. "Any requests you have, don't be afraid. We are here to serve you," he said. We told him we are mostly interested in the Yao people--the local minority. The Yao are one of Southeast Asia's most primitive hill tribes, often leading a nomadic lifestyle, and often feuding amongst themselves and their neighbors. Chinese domination has put an end to these practices among the Yao within the borders of the People's Republic. Now they are learned in Marxism-Leninism and Mao Ze Dong Thought, among other perfunctory subjects. Actually, this fellow spouted very little party rhetoric. In fact he really surprised with his honesty when he told us the Yao living near the Han Chinese rarely wear their traditional clothing, because the Chinese tend to look down on such things. In China one rarely gets such an honest appraisal from a government official. He told us about the different kinds of Yao--the Chashan (Tea Mountain) Yao, who live in deep, dark dwellings, the Jiantou (Pointy Headed) Yao, who are still predominantly up in the hills, and the Guoshan (Mountain Traversing) Yao, who used to be nomadic slash-and-burn farmers. He took us through the original Yao settlements around which Jinxiu was built. Walking through these labyrinths of clay houses, one quickly forgets the city around him. But turn the corner, and there's a department store, or a cassette shop. While this encroachment of an alien culture on the ways of the Yao is an offense to post-war Western sensibilities, ultimately the Yao are much better off this way. They are reading, they go to see the doctor. Armchair liberalism takes a back seat to quantitatively measurable material advances. Meanwhile, the Chinese, aware that Western sensibilities set the international norms, are careful when presenting their minorities' status in their propaganda.
The next day our guide got us the use of a van, and took us into the nearby countryside. Here he showed us a river valley which the local government hopes to preserve as a national park and tourist attraction. Then we went way up into the hills to a remote Yao village. The Han obviously are constantly keeping checks on these people, as the villagers greeted our guide as an old friend, who seemingly visits quite often. We sat by the fire, drank a little tea. I spied an old woman working on some embroidery, engrossed silently by the light of a tiny stove.
As we drove back to Jinxiu, I asked our guide if there were any recordings of traditional Yao music available. So when we got back to town, he stopped by a friend's house to pick up a cassette of Yao songs, then we went over to his apartment where he made a dub for me on his double cassette deck. I noticed a Konica camera box on top of the bureau in the next room. A color television sat in the corner.
Komatsu and I were so grateful for all that the people of Jinxiu had done for us. We wished them well, and hoped for success in their burgeoning tourist trade. But the next morning it was time to go. Komatsu down to Nanning, and I up to the city of Liuzhou.
I spent the next day in Liuzhou, during which time I booked a train ticket to Anshun for several days hence, and bought a ticket for the next morning to Rongshui Miao Nationality Autonomous County, about four hours north of the city. I spent the afternoon resting up in my hotel room. The hotel in Liuzhou was typically spartan. My tiny room had two firm beds. In China, people don't use mattresses; they usually sleep on wadded cotton over a wooden board. The room also had a small writing desk, a flask of boiled water, a wire strung across wall to wall from which the Chinese hang the ever-damp washcloth they use, and a single fluorescent bulb. The rest of the room, walls, floors, and ceilings, was bare concrete. A concrete mesh, situated at eye's height, faced out to the hall, destroying any hope of privacy and allowing any of the echoic sounds in the hallway (men gruffly clearing their throats, their plastic sandals slapping against the floor as they walk) to penetrate the room unfettered. The toilets were down the hall, as was the woman with the only key to the room. Except that often she wasn't there. Often she was somewhere else completely.
The Liuzhou bus station was a madhouse that next morning. Buses were squeezing through the packed parking lot, peasants carrying their bundles, baskets of chickens, of cabbage, baby on the back. It doesn't stop them from pushing any which way they want to go. You have to be careful at Chinese bus stations, especially when you're squeezing through the parked buses to board. Whatever you do, don't brush up against the side of a bus. All too often it is streaked with vomit from the previous journey. Dried and caked, but not hardened. Since the peasants rarely travel by motor car, their systems aren't accustomed. It makes for an exciting ride--dodging the puddles dribbling down the aisle, the stuff flying out one window, sometimes back in another one into someone's face.
Four hours later we arrived in Rongshui.
The town, save some stunning mountain scenery beyond, had little to offer. I checked in at the local cadres hotel, then simply went about town observing things. The Miao were not to be seen around the town. It seems the nearest village is several hours away. I'd head out there the following day. I went into the department store. Up on the second floor I found a fantastic collection of Miao embroidery. Of all China's nationalities, the Miao's embroidery is considered the most beautiful; bold colors, graphic, geometric designs. The women behind the counter turned out to be Miao, although they were dressed like Han. They said they lived several hours away into the mountains. It wasn't easy finding decent food in Rongshui. There were lots of street stalls selling mifen, but that hardly makes a filling meal. Around dinnertime, the one restaurant in town opened, and I feasted on ginger chicken and cabbage with mushrooms.
After good night's sleep, I got up early to catch the bus to the town of Sirong, two hours away. But I wasn't there yet. I had to cross a little river and catch another bus to the village of Xiangfen. Xiangfen was a total of about four buildings along the dirt road. One was a hair salon. In the south of China, nearly all stores are open-fronted. This is even true in Shanghai, where it often dips below freezing in winter. So I walked in when I saw this peasant woman getting a fancy perm. It was the kind of thing you never see in America anymore: all these crazy electrical wires coming down from this central crown hanging from the ceiling, making her look like something out of a horror movie. She became terribly embarrassed when this foreigner came in to watch the proceedings. A woman who had been riding the bus with me asked if I was headed for the Miao village. When I said "Yes," she, her daughters and I set out down a dirt path, leaving Xiangfen in the dust. We passed through several Han villages. She was so funny--the real authority. She talked to the Chinese about who I was and what I was doing here, then turning to me and telling me about who they were and what they were saying, all with such confidence, such finesse. The local language was barely intelligible to me. Two hours after we started, the village appeared: a small cluster of wooden houses in a deep valley, a stream babbling through. She showed me where they're planning to build a bridge across the stream, but until it's built, we still have to hop rocks across. "Have there ever been foreigners here before?" "Last year a group of Japanese came. They were the first--you're the second. But you'll get a special treat, since it's New Year's time!"
Arriving in the village, I was struck by the size of the sprawling homes. Huge, sturdy, wooden affairs with long covered porches in addition to bamboo open-air landings. All the houses were raised on stilts off the ground. I set my things down, then had the obligatory tea with the men of the house. I suppose I was more aware of their minority status than they were. They just live their lives, and here I am coming especially to see them live their lives, because I know it's unique. But to them it's just life. So maybe they thought it was strange when I asked them about Miao this, Miao that. But maybe not, because as I was to find out, they seemed extremely proud of their culture and traditions. A group of guys came in with some red poster paper and ink. As a commemoration, they wanted me to write a wall poster in English. Mustering all my own ethnic pride and disdain for geopolitics, I wrote in big letters, "Long Live Miao-Jewish Friendship". "I'm also a minority in America," I explained. I guess the subtlety of my message was lost, because they wrote on the next sheet as a translation, "Zhong-Mei youyi wansui" "Long Live Chinese-American Friendship".
"Come on! Let's go outside! They've already started!" and we rushed downstairs, someone taking me by the hand through this maze of passageways between the houses, under the houses. I heard a strange sound, getting louder, as we emerged into a flat, open space. "This is special for the Miao people," they said proudly. There was a pole in the middle of this space. Around the pole was a group of men in a circle. Each had a bamboo tube, a pipe. All different sizes, some huge, maybe ten feet long, others tiny, maybe a foot. They were blowing in unison, dancing in unison, slow, deliberate steps. To the right, to the right. Stop. Lift your leg, turn around, face outside, bow down, lean back, turn around again, twist back, twist forth, step, step. The pipes echoed each movement, flowing left when they twisted right, right when they twisted left. Colorful feathers on top of each pipe swayed with the movement, with the sound. The sound!
It was an enormous assault of sound, from the biggest, deepest pipe, to the littlest, shrillest. It was a tremendous barrage of sound, of living, breathing sound, like a herd of elephants, sucking in, blowing out, in a series of chords. The men jerked their bodies, the sound jerked with them. In pattern, these men blew their pipes, moved their bodies, all in time. And then it suddenly stopped! All sound, all movement stopped. An old man stepped back from the circle, he played the smallest pipe. He started playing a series of shrill, ornamental patterns, all alone in the opening, the village, the valley. He twisted his body, then the entire ensemble twisted and blew! And the enormous orchestra filled the entire valley with a flood of sound once again.
I saw some young girls in traditional costume approaching the area They wore embroidered wrap-around jackets--some pink, some maroon, some brown, some black--heavy pleated skirts, plastic flowers tied around their right wrists, and silver crowns on their heads. They approached the musicians, and began walking around them. Five or six girls, slowly, deliberately, as slow and deliberate as the music itself, began walking in circle
around the ensemble. By now a crowd had formed. Most of the village, it seemed, was here. I saw more girls coming through the crowd, joining the procession. Ten, fifteen girls, all doing their simple dance steps, taking their place in size order. Twenty, thirty girls. The music continued, the swaying, the twisting, the bowing continued in perfect unison, the blowing in perfect harmony. Fifty, sixty girls now formed an enormous ring
that filled up the entire clearing. Boom! Boom! Someone set off some cherry bombs. Old women went scurrying off. The kids were dancing around, imitating the musicians, twisting back and forth to the music, holding their hands to their mouth as if blowing a pipe. Some teenagers came running through with a string of firecrackers. This time they got reprimanded. They were upsetting the old women. I saw a crowd in a corner, jumping, shrieking, scurrying across the ground. A man had brought out a bag of candy, flinging it into the air. Kids and adults alike were sent into a frenzy after the stuff.
And the music continued to overwhelm, echoing into the mountains beyond.
And suddenly the musicians stopped. And the girls disappeared, back to their houses to change their clothes. And the firecrackers ceased, and the frightened old women came back out.
The pipes were sitting against the pole. Some kids ran over and start blowing, twisting and blowing in random fashion. Firecracker paper was strewn everywhere, as were candy wrappers. And the valley was still once again.
That evening we feasted on, well, rather plain food --cabbage, rice noodles, sour vegetables, and fat, but I had my first taste of a special Miao brew. A white, slightly milky, slightly effervescent drink that went down just a little too smoothly. We got ripped! Seven or eight guys and I sat around the table in the darkened room, all pouring our neighbor a hit, then altogether pouring our own drink into our neighbors' mouth, like a train. "Whooh! Whooh! Whooh!" they called out in unison, in a high falsetto. "This is also a Miao custom," they explained through their laughter. In a drunken stupor, they took me outside into the night, and in the maze of passageways through the houses, through the chickens and pigs, the irrigation canals, I was clutching on to the nearest guy for dear life. I was at their mercy. We went up into someone's house, where there was a bunch of teenagers listening to disco music. "Come on! Show us how to disco!" Oh my God. I was too drunk, there was too much momentum. I moved into the middle of the room and just started letting go, started boogying. They were laughing, clapping, whooping. Some were brave enough to join me. Thank God! I used that as an excuse to stop. "No--you know how to do it--go ahead!" I said.
Midnight was fast approaching. We went outside down below the village into a rice field where the competition was just getting underway. Flashlights were cutting the crystal clear night. There were two poles set up. One for "us"--our village, one for "them". I wasn't quite sure how this was going to work, so I just decided to wait and see. The shrill notes of the leader began. It was "them". TWIST. TWIST. And the blowing started piercing the still night, filling up the sky. They were blowing with all their might. swaying back and forth with incredible intensity. Swoosh! Swoosh. And I hear. more shrill trilling. And I looked at our team. They began blowing too! At the same time. In a higher key. The two ensembles were trying to outblow eac. other. Louder and louder, more and more intense, but never faster. Whoeve. blows louder wins. Twenty minutes of this overwhelming spectacle of sound an. movement, and it's over. As we were all heading back up to the village for sleep, I asked who won.
"Who do you think won?" a kid asked back.
I was put up in a beautiful little room with a big canopied bed. Next to the bed was a small cassette player, a toothbrush in a cup. Pasted onto the walls were family photos and various pin-up girls from Chinese calendars--it could have been any teenager's room anywhere. In the morning, I decided it was time to go. "Oh, you should stay longer, at least till lunch time. They're going to start playing again soon. Don't you want to hear them again?" said my host from the night before. He was great--always translating what people said to me, about me, even when they were speaking Chinese, not Miao. So he was just repeating what they were saying. I didn't have the heart to tell him that their Chinese was as intelligible as his. "I tell you what," I said, "I'd like to buy some Miao clothing from you, ok. But after that I really must go back. I'm not sure if they had any idea why I wanted their clothing, but he gladly agreed, and we went from house to house, him explaining what I want, people running to show off their wares. After about an hour of running around, I settled on a black velvet jacket with embroidered edges, a. embroidered dickey, and a heavy pleated skirt. The skirts are pleated by hand. then forced into a bamboo tube, at which time they are steamed to make the pleats permanent. It is quite a process, and certainly worth more than the twenty kuai (US$5) I paid for it. I felt bad though, because I hadn't bough. anything directly from my friend's family. So I bought a little batik head clot. for an exorbitant amount--six kuai. He assured me that such objects are very difficult to make and require a lot of time.
And now I really had to insist on leaving. As the men were blowing away on their lusheng, my friend and I walked out of the village and across the stream, at which point I headed off on my own--back to Xiangfen, hitching a ride to Sirong, hitching another ride to Rongshui, and the next morning, taking the bus to Sanjiang.
Sanjiang is an autonomous county of the Dong people.
Dong people are famous throughout China for their carpentry skills--building beautiful and complex structures without ever using a single nail. The area is most famous for one particular structure--a turreted wooden bridge. Since there is only one bus per day which goes near the bridge, I stayed overnight in the rather unsensational county seat. In the evening I poked my nose in here and there--a disco for middle school students up on the top floor of the hospital, a Dong opera, put on free by some local Dong peasants, and an excellent photo exhibit of traditional Dong customs in the lobby of a movie theater. But I was up earl. the next morning to catch the seven thirty bus to the "Wind and Rain" bridge; fengyuqiao.
An hour's ride into the countryside, and there it was, dominating the entire river valley. Five turrets covering the walkway. Along the walkway itself were built-in benches and intermittent shrines. The shrines stand by and large empty now, of course. The bridge was built in 1911.
Since it was still quite early, there was virtually no life stirring in the nearby village, just beyond the bridge, over a hill. I walked along. Dong houses are huge, ramshackle things, made of dark, dark wood. The windows were still shut, their wooden shades not yet let down. Soon enough, a few old women started making their way over to the river, where they collected water in heavy buckets. In the still morning, the gurgling of the river and the clunking of those wooden buckets mesmerized me. We smiled politely, awkwardly at eac. other, but no words were exchanged. I sat by the water awhile until the village started to come to life a bit. Shades came down, faces were washed, vegetables started to get chopped, oil began to sizzle. I walked through again. Shy girls would peek out their windows at me. If our eyes met, they'd dart back inside. But soon enough, things began to settle down, and a crowd gathered and we bega. to talk. One man invited me to his home.
Dong's homes, like the Miao's of Rongshui, are wooden and built off the ground. But that's where the similarities end. Where Miao homes are neatly designed in a ranch style, Dong homes are box-shaped--three, even four stories high. He asked me if I've ever seen Dongbu made--Dong fabric. It seems Dong clothing is made of a special material that only the Dong use; a sturdy, slightly iridescent indigo fabric. No, I'd never seen Dongbu made. He and his wife brought me up to the attic where they showed me how they spin the thread and weave the fabric. Frankly, I didn't quite understand how it works. Primitive technology, perhaps because its workings are potentially comprehensible, is truly fascinating to behold. I remember being struck in a similar way when I saw the waterway system at work in the Yao village. Bamboo runners would guide the water coming in from the mountains, splitting the flow to feed every home.
Anyway, after this sewing lesson, I asked if I could buy any of their clothing. Dong men also wear traditional clothing, a rarity among the minority peoples I'd seen. Alas, Dong frames are markedly smaller than Western ones, and so they couldn't find me a suitable jacket. "I'll pay you to make one for me.
He considered it, and then said, "One hundred kuai."
"But it has to be done by tomorrow, because I have to leave. Can it be done?
So what could I do. Why didn't he tell me before. I felt terrible, but there was nothing I could do. I reached into my pocket and gave him a five kuai note, and as a gesture of good faith I bought some baby clothes from him. It was obviously a loss of face for him, so I decided I should just leave immediately. We said our good-byes, and I made my way back to the bridge, where I got a ride back to Sanjiang with a group of cadres who were touring the area.
Next morning I went back to Liuzhou. Liuzhou was a world away from the remote regions from which I was coming. A dusty semi-industrial city with a touch of cosmopolitanism--just a touch. The people were, in sharp contrast to those of the villages I'd been visiting, among the most aloof I'd encountered in China. I was largely ignored in Liuzhou. Very few "hellos," very few stares.
Liuzhou, take it or leave it. The next morning I was ready to leave it. I thought maybe in the surrounding countryside I'd find the people a little more eager to talk. I boarded the number nine bus and went out to some caves with lots of colored neon to jazz things up. I wish these people would get their act together. Twice we got stuck in the caves, as the exit gate was locked, and of course, our guide didn't have the key. It's so predictable...only in China. I came back to the city and wandered about a bit more. When you talk, people are friendly, helpful, polite. I had an interesting talk in a little private restaurant. The owners, a husband and wife, were actually Overseas Chinese from Indonesia. They came here twenty years ago to study, and their passports expired, so they're stuck here. Well, that's what they told me, anyway. I went into a poor section of town down around the Liu River. I walked through the cramped alleys bustling with activity--old men smoking, kids jumping rope, women washing clothes. I looked into one home where the front room was dominated by a beat up old pool table. Some young guys invited me in, and we played some pool. Liuzhou is a poor, run-down, dusty, dirty mess, but it's ok. Take it or leave it. I'll take it. Nonetheless, the next morning at 8:25, I left it.
Train 275, it turns out, begins in Liuzhou, and is a relatively new line, so it wasn't so crowded, and therefore not too difficult to switch my hard seat ticket up to a hard sleep ticket. Getting one's desired ticket in China is usually no easy feat. It was a nineteen hour ride. I was really treated like . king on that train. It was terribly embarrassing. When I got up to fetch a dinnerbox, the staff said I should stay put. They brought it to me on a tray. Other staff came by to talk for awhile, fearing I must be lonely. The couple across from me were very friendly, offering travel advice, feeding me no end. I gave them a New Yorker magazine I'd finished with. They loved the glamorous ads. "What are they selling here. What is she doing?
I alighted at Anshun at 3 AM. Anshun is a small city in Guizhou Province, about an hour and a half north of Huangguoshu, China's biggest waterfall, and my destination. The staff at the station seemed to be well-versed in such matters. as they took me aside, and asked me if I wanted to buy my ticket to Kunming--the next large city down the line. No, I didn't want to buy a ticket now. They also asked if I wanted to go to the hotel now. No, here is fine. So I holed up in a back room of the station for a few hours with a nice heater which helped combat Guizhou Province's perpetual dank. At six o'clock I was awakened by a young policeman, who said he'd take me to the bus station. Fifteen minutes later we were at the bus station, but there were no tickets to Huangguoshu to be had. All sold. No matter, he just escorted me through all the red tape and put me right on the bus without a ticket. I felt ridiculous, as the bus was alread. overcrowded and here I was with a seat, but I realized it would have been more trouble had I objected, so I just let it be.
Ninety minutes later we pulled into Huangguoshu, a little village built on the edge of a gorge.
The falls are mighty impressive, though because it's the dry season, they were a mere trickle of their full force.
I booked into the hotel--a room with a view--and then headed for the falls. I walked all around the area, including a funky excursion behind the falls, which was a lot of fun. if a bit life-threatening. On the way out I bumped into a Japanese student named Kazuo, and we agreed to meet after lunch. It seemed we were the only foreigners in town.
I walked around the town, staring unashamedly--Chinese style--at the Buyi, the aboriginal people of Guizhou Province. Their faces are quite different from the Chinese. They are rather androgynous in appearance, the women with flat chests and shaved heads, the men with a feminine roundness to their faces. They have wide, flaring noses. All wear skirts, though of different varieties. The women wear pleated affairs, mostly blacks and dark blues with some patches of colorful embroidery here and there, and a turban-like hat which is worn in a variety of fashions--sometimes coiled, sometimes folded, perhaps depending on their marital status. The men wear all black caftans with little ornamentation, not unlike the Jews of Eastern Europe. So I walked through the little village around the falls, and got some lunch. These people were not quite as outgoing in their friendliness as, say, the Zhuang of Yangshuo, but once they warmed up to me, they seemed genuinely enthusiastic.
After lunch, Kazuo and I got invited to a Buyi village about an hour's walk into the mountains.
It was quite a walk into the remotest of remote countryside, the rugged landscape of jagged rock, rolling hills, and intermittent farmland. The path was tiny, and no vehicle, not even a bicycle, could traverse it. Every so often we'd pass some Buyi carrying heavy loads to and from their villages. About an hour into the hills and into the silence we arrived at a little Buyi village of stone and straw.
On a hill, the village was a hodgepodge of stone houses with slate and straw roofs. At the house of our Buyi friend's family, one enters the "living room" with a stone floor, and notices all the other rooms separated by only strip bamboo and wooden beams, around the stone and straw exterior. A storage room lay to the back, the very dark, almost black kitchen off to the left back side, and the sleeping area on the left front side. The parents' "room" was separated from the kids' and grandmother's by a bamboo wall. A second level was used for storage.
The kids were quite timid at first, so we asked our guide how to say "don't be afraid " in the Buyi language. "Meng dei," with a robust implosive "d", he told us, and Kazuo and I ran around to all the little kids saying "Meng dei! Meng dei! Meng dei!" Kazuo was really something. All the enthusiasm that I tended to keep behind a pursed smile, he was able to express without the least bit of hesitation--arms flailing, gasping with wonder. It was only much later I thought about how silly we must have seemed, getting such a thrill out of our two words of Buyi. After everyone calmed down, we sat down for a Buyi dinner, which was bit on the salty side, but the fried rice was superb.
Next morning, Kazuo and I went with our guide to another Buyi village, an excursion we had arranged the previous afternoon.
We took a bus to the next town, and from there walked about an hour down a path and into the hills beyond. This was another hilltop settlement, a village which reports seeing only two or three foreigners a year. But we came in part for business. To buy samples of Buyi clothing and batik. According to the Chinese, the Buyis are world-renowned for their batik work. Perhaps not, but they should be. They work almost exclusively with indigo, employing a myriad of intricate patterns with an emphasis on flowers and birds. After lots of wheeling and dealing, and after mounds upon mounds of incredible stuff was shown us, and after Kazuo got up in full female festival-wear, much to the delight of the Buyi, I settled on an embroidered apron, a batik skirt, a hanky, and two hats. The batik skirt alone, I later found out, would go for perhaps six hundred kuai at the one place you might be able to get it in Shanghai. For everything, I paid a grand total of 111 kuai. I guess it's just a matter of time before the Buyi get smart--or get angry.
At about three we headed back to the road, as Kazuo had bought a train to Kunming back at Anshun for that evening. It was sad to say goodbye to Kazuo, but we walked back into town and he boarded the next bus to Anshun. So off my Buyi guide and I went in the other direction from the Buyi village towards a Miao village, another hour's walk down a mountain path. The Miao live in several provinces of China, as well as in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, all related, but all with their own unique ways. I was to find out the Miao of Anshun are quite different from their cousins at Rongshui.
Anshun Miao are closer in dress to the Buyi than to the Rongshui Miao.
The women ornament their appearance with heavy engraved silver necklaces and earrings. They wear hats with fringes framing their faces, and like the Buyi, wear long draping skirts. Upon my arrival, everyone was inviting me in to drink tea and wine. The interiors of the homes are not dissimilar in style to Buyi homes, though they seem more complex in design. Again, they are made of stone, wood, straw, bamboo.
They brought some clothes for me to look at. One woman showed me a stunningly beautiful embroidered jacket of rich blues and purples with flowery ornamentation appliqué. I gasped when she handed it to me to study. Everybody laughed. They knew it was a special piece. I gave her all the money I had for it.
I sipped some hot water in one home where they were in the process of making glutinous rice cakes. They'd beat the rice into a paste with a blunt wooden pole in a wooden box. Then they'd take another wooden box of the same size, this one with strings strung tightly across the frame creating twelve small squares. When they lifted the first box and flipped it over onto the second, the rice-paste fell through, the strings cutting it into distinct bricks. They gave me a brick to munch on. It was all over too quickly, and only an hour after we arrived we were forced to go to beat the dark.
While walking back to town, I asked my Buyi companion, who was no doubt a cadre in his own right, if there are any problems between the Han, the Buyi, and the Miao. Historically, the Miao have been very hostile to outsiders, perhaps due primarily to their being exploited in the past by stronger races. "No problems whatsoever," he said, and he clenched his hands together in one joint fist. The Miao are better known to Americans as the Hmong.
Upon arriving in town, he was prepared to walk me all the way back to Huangguoshu--another hour by foot. Insisting I go myself makes little difference to these almost officiously polite people. Fortunately, about fifteen minutes into the journey I flagged down a truck, and they were very happy to give the American a ride. Having run out of "People's Money", I was forced to change "Foreigner's Money" one for one. In urban black markets you can get up to 1.5 to one. Being a temporary resident of China, I had a special card saying I am allowed to use people's money, where foreign tourists must use foreign exchange certificates. People's money is not a convertible currency. I left the hotel at 7:15 the next morning to try my luck at hitchhiking, before the 8:20 bus arrived, which would head out toward Yunnan Province in the southwest corner of China. Within five minutes I got a ride on a truck--they were going all the way to Yunnan.
The scenery was stirring. Big, rugged mountains dotted with tiny, poor villages. The mountain road was smooth, but circuitous, snaking up and down the mountains, hugging the cliffsides. We saw Hei Miao--Black Miao.
These women dress in black robes, surrounding their heads with them, draping the material instead of wrapping it. We stopped for lunch in a big market town called Qinglong.
There I saw some Yi minority women, who made it very clear to me they didn't want to be photographed. They were wearing beautifully embroidered clothes and huge, complex headpieces. Outside of town we loaded up the truck bed with sugarcane, and by 6PM we had arrived at the town of Panxian in the far west of Guizhou, unloading our cargo.
Panxian was a slimy, filthy, grimy, murky mess. It looks like the sun hasn't shone here in a hundred years: streets of mud and matted straw, buildings surviving only by leaning into one another for dear life, and poor, poor, miserable people. I can't imagine a city being much less livable than Panxian. It must be closed to foreigners, but no one said a word the entire time I was there. Yang, my truckdriver friend, was so apologetic about Panxian, offering awkward smiles as we passed a particularly polluted canal, or encountered an especially downtrodden bum. Yet it was in Panxian where we were to spend the night.
The hotel: Walls disintegrating into mold exposing the brick beneath, ceilings falling down in green chunks, entire corridors lit by a single dim bulb; a hotel worthy of its town. They gave me what I'll call the "executive suite"--a big bed, a desk, a couch, two chairs (forming what one might call a "conversation nook"), and a night table, which upon inspection contained a half-eaten box of cookies in its drawer. Yang warned me it would be pretty low, and gave me the option of staying in the local cadres' hotel, but I figured if he could do it, I could do it.
I slept very poorly that night, due to a little four-legged visitor who insisted on making his presence known all too often. As a result, I was a neurotic nut all night, lying in bed thrashing in fright at every shadow and non-shadow, while in the hills beyond Panxian town the wolves cried out to the cloud-enshrouded moon.
Nothing made me happier than leaving Panxian, that horrible hellhole of a place. What a wretched existence. The farther away we got, the happier I was, the more determined I became to bring the world the news never to go to Panxian. So off we went back into the mountains--the poverty-stricken mountains of Guizhou. It is said that in Guizhou there are not three square miles of flat land, not three days of sun in a year, and not one man possessing even three bits of silver. I can believe it. It is horribly rugged, horribly dank, horribly poor. In the morning fog, coal fires dotted the mountainsides, churning out a choking black smoke. Black-faced kids sat by idly, warming their hands, old men smoking their pipes nearby.
The road got narrower, rougher, more dangerous, when finally, we arrived at a coal loading station. All the kids at the station got to work loading the truck bed with coal, as we went into their dorm for a rest. I konked out, first seated in front of a coal stove, and then I was escorted to a bed for some heavy-duty catching up. I was awakened to eat lunch-- spicy hot chicken. Guizhou cuisine, like Sichuan's, its neighbor to the north, relies heavily on hot peppers. After lunch I went out and played with the kids around the coal fires.
One boy claimed to be able to speak a little English. "How old are you?" I asked. "I'm twelve." I was impressed!
After saying "Bye-bye" to everyone, we pulled away with a truck full of coal. But we seemed to be backtracking. Where were we going?! No! Back towards Panxian!! A nightmare come true. It seems the loading station is south of Panxian, but no road connects it with the main Yunnan road. What a tragedy for the civilized mind. The closer we came, the sicker I got. Finally, holding my breath, we caught sight of the cesspool, and made our way through it without incident. Goodbye forever!
Back again into the rolling hills of poverty. West of Panxian, these hills seem peopled exclusively by the Han. The weather varied between fog and drizzle and just overcast. Yang assured me yes, Guizhou has miserable weather, but Yunnan is always lovely! It was becoming a rather arduous journey. Two full days crunched into the cab of a truck, bumping over cliff-hugging mountain paths. Still, I thought, the less I like this, the more I'll like Yunnan. As we finally headed into Yunnan, the mountains became less rugged, more rolling, the villages became less decrepit looking, more neat and tidy, and even the clouds cleared just in time for the sun to set. After stopping at a weighing station, we honed in on our destination: Qujing. I hoped and prayed it was not another Panxian with rat-infested hotels. As we approached the city, the road became wider and smoother, street lights lining its sides. All around I saw beautiful new buildings and manicured gardens. I soon discovered this to be a beautiful new city, with bright, broad boulevards, clean restaurants, well-lit shops, and a sparkling new hotel with comfortable singles for seven kuai.
Yang took me over to his place to meet his family. In a tiny single room on the grounds of his work unit, Yang, his wife, and his baby live their lives. All the earmarks of Chinese domesticity were present: the flasks of boiled water, the cassette player with a fringed pink towel draped over it to keep dust away, the giant "beizi", the extra-heavy quilts the Chinese use, folded at the foot of the bed, and the all-purpose table, displaying family snapshots under its glass covering. After talking about my travels with Yang and his wife over glasses of tea, we arranged to meet the next morning, when Yang would show me around a bit. Qujing was such a breath of fresh air after Panxian, with its clean, bright streets, well-stocked, uncrowded shops, neat houses, well-dressed, well-fed people, and gorgeous climate. That next morning Yang and I met as planned, and although we tried to find a place to change money, we couldn't. No foreigners ever come here, for some unknown reason, so I was on a very tight budget. In Qujing, they have a new park with traditional architecture and manicured gardens, tea houses, a billiards hall, and a university. Just ten years ago any or all of these things might be labeled anti-Revolutionary, and would either be shut down or destroyed. Yet walking around the city after lunch, I decided Qujing was much like its local soda; pleasant, but bland--not much personality. As Yang went off to wash his truck, I went in search of this missing personality--and found it. At the far end of town is an extensive old section of narrow streets and wooden houses. The streets were lined with little boutiques and restaurants. There was no filth or grime or horrible poverty, just age and character.
I came back to the hotel in high spirits, and asked where I could bathe. They took me down the street to a factory's bath room. Now, Western bodies are instantly pegged as different even fully clothed, prompting endless staring from the Chinese, so you can imagine what it's like when they see us with our clothes off. I made it a quick bath.
The next morning, I met with Yang to say goodbye and thank you. I brought him a little present for his baby; a set of colored plastic building blocks. "No. I can't accept this. I'm embarrassed. Please!" "I'm not even giving it to you," I said, "It's for your baby. If he doesn't want it, he'll have to come here and tell me for himself.
Yang took me to the station where I boarded the bus to the Stone Forest--a geological oddity about three hours south of Kunming, the provincial capital--where the rock formations are not dissimilar to tall trees, hence the name. It was like a natural fun-house, with secret passages and narrow crunchways. For the remainder of my trip, all in Yunnan, the weather was always perfect. As buses leave the Stone Forest only in the afternoon, I decided to leave that same day, and so took a bus up to Kunming, where I finally changed some money, and then changed it again on the black market. That afternoon I booked a flight for the next week to Xishuangbanna, the Dai Minority Autonomous Prefecture located in the far south of Yunnan, right next to Laos and Burma. I also got a bus ticket for the next day to a little place called Tonghai, which Yang told me had some interesting minority people.
I ended up spending three days in Tonghai. Upon arrival after the five hour bus ride, I checked into the hotel. After a little nap, I walked around this small but lively market town. At a little restaurant a boy waiter told me I should head for the Xiushan Park at the back of town.
All the way up the hill was a series of beautiful temples and gardens. Then I went beyond the park on to a dirt path leading into the hills, hoping to stumble upon a village. I walked for perhaps half an hour, encountering nothing. Finally, I saw a single house with someone working out in front. "Hello," I said. And this incredibly bucked tooth woman looked up and gave me a blank stare, as did her water buffalo. I stared awkwardly back, then moseyed on my way. So much for niceties.
Back in town, I stopped in at the Public Security Bureau to ask about the minority villages Yang had mentioned. They turned out to be extremely helpful and friendly. "We are policemen. We can help you," said one guy--in English yet. I asked about minority peoples in the area, and they told me about a Menggu--Mongolian--village about 15 kilometers away. They told me the Menggu are the rarest of Yunnan's thirty-six officially recognized minorities. I asked if there was a place in town that rents bikes. They told me when I come back in the morning they'd have a bike for me to borrow. How should one react to such graciousness? I have no idea.
Next day, I awoke early, had some spicy noodles, then went to Public Security. "Oh! Good morning! Come in please. Sit down. Here--drink tea. Have you eaten?" They got out a geological survey map and explained just how to get to Xingmen, the Menggu settlement, and then off I went. Ten minutes into the ride my bike pedal fell apart, so I pulled into a small factory looking for a nut. Boy did I find one! He took the entire pedal apart, cleaned it, cleaned the ball bearings, oiled everything. Twenty minutes later I was riding on what was probably the finest pedal in all of Asia. About an hour later I arrived.
It was a slow beginning, as I got some suspicious looks, but before long things settled down, and off I went for the obligatory lunch. Fish, fried eggs, broccoli, and rice. Their houses seemed not to be in any fixed design, rambling wherever necessary to fit the contours of the earth below.
I started bargaining at 25 kuai. She laughed. She started at 200. I laughed back. Bargaining went pretty slowly for a while. All of a sudden, a water buffalo decided it was time to come into the inner courtyard from outside. We were all pinned against the walls as this enormous creature lumbered straight through the house. Given the goings-on at the time, it lent a new meaning to the old "bull in the china shop" story.
As a recuperative measure, I suggested we listen to some Menggu music. I had to ride to the nearest town--to Xichun--to buy some cassettes for dubbing. The town was overflowing with people in the marketplace. Plastic combs, little pens knives, net bags, all kinds of little doodads were for sale. I bought three Sonys plus a Yunnan folk tape that I chanced upon, then made the 3 km dash back to Xingmen. As the music was being recorded, we agreed upon a price for the clothes. We sat, listened to the music, drank tea, smoked their water pipe. The first side of the tape was a drone vocal over a staccato stringed instrument. The second side was women chanting over a heavy clapping beat. A Menggu came in who spoke some broken English. He was a nice guy, but had the annoying habit of speaking to me, whether in Chinese or English, very loudly and slowly. "When I Heard There Is An American Here I Cannot Believe It." The English speaker invited me to his home--a two-level, semi-open-air house. He was a teacher and spoke very nice Chinese. He told me the Menggu came here 730 years ago from Mongolia, sent by Kublai Khan to settle in the newly-conquered area. The Mongolians in Yunnan number only 4200 and live in only four villages. Xingmen is one of them. We ate a delicious meal of fish, chicken, egg, meat, tofu, broccoli, and sour vegetables. We were a bit drunk, a bit buzzed from smoking their waterpipe. Chickens were pecking around my feet at the bones. Mother was nursing baby in the corner as the fire softly crackled.
After sitting an hour, we exchanged addresses and good-byes as I raced off to beat the sundown. I sped back to Tonghai and pulled into the police station.
"Oh! You're back! How was your day? Are you tired? Have you eaten? Please sit! Drink tea! Would you like the bike again tomorrow?" We retired to the office for tea, and they helped me plan my next day's journey to the nearby town of Nijiaying, which is peopled by the Hui--Chinese Moslems--and has a mosque.
That next day was a veritable roller coaster of ups and downs. It was Chinese New Year's Day. Apparently, the Tonghai police notified the Nijiaying police of my imminent arrival, as a policeman was there to greet me as I arrived on the outskirts of town. He escorted me to the mosque, where I was introduced to the community's religious leader.
He and most of the village were Hui. All the young people study Arabic and the Koran, and go to their leader for spiritual and moral advice. He goes to Saudi Arabia for his. He considers himself privileged to have made the sojourn to Saudi Arabia, for Sino-Saudi relations are not very good, and thus exchanges are kept to a minimum. The mosque has been running for 400 years in one form or another, with, of course, intermittent shutdowns by the Chinese. I didn't like him very much. I didn't like the way mushed rice flew out of his mouth as we were talking over lunch. I didn't like his wet burps. I didn't like his idea of showing me a good time. Visiting a plastic shoe factory, a cleaver factory, a nail factory, and a window factory is not my idea of a good time. So I said thank you and goodbye to him and his curious students who had never seen a foreigner before, and I cycled through some celery groves to a nearby lake and fell asleep under the sun.
I began to meander back to Tonghai, stopping anywhere that seemed interesting. Sijie was a little town with a commercial district, including a rather decrepit two-story department store. I started a new roll a film, took some pictures, then cycled back to my hotel for another nap. When I awoke, I began organizing my things for leaving the next morning. I couldn't find the roll of film I finished in Sijie. I looked through everything two, three times. I began to panic, to get sick. I ran to the police station and began to explain everything--where I must have left it in Sijie. They were genuinely concerned, and ultimately decided to take the jeep out and have a look around. So off we went for a twenty minute ride to look for a film canister. "Don't worry. We'll find it." I was terribly worried. The Menggu village, the Stone Forest, Qujing, the truck ride, even Panxian--gone forever. I was almost crying. I also felt so embarrassed and buffoonish having them go to all this trouble for me. I could not imagine American police doing this for anyone. It was just miserable. Back in my room, I made one last check of everything. I found two more exposed rolls in the socks pocket of my pack, making a total of five exposed rolls, not the three I had thought. I was now almost certain the roll was not lost at all. So now I felt like the complete idiot. I dared not tell them. But still, I wasn't sure. It was such a crazy mess. But that night was Spring Festival. I was determined to forget my worries.
Chinese people rarely let go and have fun. It is not a common sight. This night, they paraded around the town in little ensembles (presumably by work unit), wearing these very clever costumes, including a huge, life-size elephant.
All the while a deafening crunch of firecrackers pounded my ears. The paraders hopped amidst the explosions, risking life and limb. I wandered through town, ducking for cover every so often to avoid a stray bottle rocket or some other such thing, ending up back at the police station, the only place in town where I'd gotten to know the people a bit. Over the noise and screaming, the now drunk Chief of Police told me that he's giving me free rein in all of Tonghai Prefecture. I was free to go anywhere I like, including closed towns. I stayed until I was too exhausted to stand the ear-pounding any longer, and retired to my room, the incessant rumble of firecrackers ringing in my ears into all hours of the night...
...In Kunming I got everything done I needed to. I got my plane ticket for the next morning to Xishuangbanna, and booked a train ticket back to Shanghai, two weeks hence. Next morning I boarded the plane to Simao, a small town five hours north of Jinghong, the regional capital of Xishuangbanna. This was a tiny little Soviet plane that made a great big Soviet noise. Unfortunately, there is no connecting bus to Jinghong, so I stayed over in Simao with some Dutch in a little hotel--about 35 cents per person. It was very hot, and the mosquitoes (and my fear of malaria and encephalitis) were in full force.
The next day's bus ride was five hours cramped in the back seat. There was no room even to scratch an itch--and I had plenty of itches. But the landscape became more and more lush, the terrain more and more mountainous, and as we came down into the river valley that is Jinghong, I was finally able to say it: "I'm in the jungle." We arrived, and made our way to the foreigners' hotel. After getting a room, I went into town, and met up with some Chinese students from Sichuan who were on vacation. They invited me back to their hotel at the Xishuangbanna Flora Research Institute, and arranged for me to stay there--at a much more reasonable nightly rate. The rest of the day and evening I just wandered around town trying to get my bearings. Jinghong seemed to have little in common with points north; much more a Southeast Asian town than a Chinese one. The graceful Dai women in their colorful sarongs and their white blouses promenade with their sun parasols down palm-lined paths. Hani women, much stockier than the Dai in their warrior-cum-roller derby garb add an earthier element to the town.
The next morning I rented a bike and rode into the countryside. I stopped at a temple with several little monks busy constructing furniture in their orange robes and shaved heads--the Dai people are Buddhist.
They had that prototypical monk image that naive Westerners tend to associate with complete asceticism, seriousness, and spirituality.
But really, they were just regular little kids, singing pop songs, playing pool. I asked one boy how long he stays a monk. He said there are no rules, but he plans to do it for three years. He was sixteen. They invited me into their living quarters. We took off our shoes and sat on the mats sipping tea, looking at a picture book of European capitals--Paris, Amsterdam, Prague. I asked them if they had any Dai music on tape that I could copy. "Of course," they said. We sat cross-legged in the still dark room listening to the chanting drones of the Dai. After exchanging addresses, I said bye-bye to my Dai monk friends, and off I went to the town of Gasa for lunch in the town tavern, and then went further out.
A few kilometers down the rode, I spotted a Dai village about a kilometer across the rice fields. As I entered the village, a woman ran out of her house and welcomed me to Manguanshun.
She invited me to park my bike under her house and come upstairs for tea. Dai homes are very sturdily built structures set up on stilts about ten to twelve feet off the ground. The interiors are huge: a spacious wooden-floored main room with a stove in the corner, and open space most everywhere else. Off the main room are the more cramped sleeping quarters. Houses are kept tidy and clean; the Dai are the cleanest people I'd encountered in China. We sat cross-legged on the floor, the whole family and me. I heard a commotion outside. The man of the house popped up and said, "Come on! Take your camera! Let's go up the hill or we'll miss it!" I had arrived just in time for a temple-building ceremony.
They were ringing out clangs of music, intermittently whooping as they were lugging an enormous log up the hill to the temple site. When they reached the top of the hill, they poured alcohol over the log, lit some incense, and began chanting prayers. A tattooed fellow took me over to the temple, which thus far is only a concrete base. Dai men tattoo their arms and chests at various points in their lives, commemorating certain momentous occasions. Hordes followed us on to the platform, men, women, and children alike, laughing and whooping for reasons known only to them. After I attempted to communicate with this tattooed fellow, and failed because he couldn't speak Chinese, a young fellow stepped up, and in fluent Han invited me back to his home. Everyone laughed and wished me well as my host and I went down the hill. He said he was twenty-four and a teacher. That explained his ability to speak Chinese. We climbed the stairs up into his house, where he introduced me to his wife, whose smile revealed two gold incisors. We chatted and ate and drank for a good few hours. He told me his school was in the next village. He said he's been educated by the Chinese. He told how the Dai people are Thai, but that most never go to Thailand, although they often go to Burma, which is only a few miles down the road. He said the minorities, but not the Han, are allowed to cross back and forth across the border. I told him I'd never been to Thailand or Burma, but I'd love to go. He asked me if Thailand was in the USA. He and his wife invited me to stay with them for the night. I explained I would have loved to, but I had this rather expensive rented bike with me. I promised to come back in two days to spend the night.
The next morning I got up early and took a boat down the Lancang river to Menghan, just a stone's throw from the Burmese and Lao borders.
The Lancang starts in the highlands of Tibet, flows down through Yunnan, and then through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where it is known as the Mekong. Looking down at the water, the same water that would make its way through Cambodia, I thought if the world were different, I could just follow the river down and visit that now forbidden land. But this boat ride stopped in Menghan. I took my time wandering around this dusty town with its collection of Burmese or Thai-styled pagodas. I came back to the dock just in time to have missed the returning boat, so I checked into a little hotel for the evening. In the warm evening air, I took a walk along the river; along the Mekong. Fisherman were silently casting their nets. I walked toward Cambodia, but turned back and went to sleep early.
When I got back to my hotel in Jinghong, I found out the Chinese students who had been so friendly to me left without paying their bill. We had told the hotel keeper that I was their English teacher, because they thought it would be a problem, a foreigner staying in this cheap hotel instead if the expensive guest house. The hotel keeper asked me their names. I said I didn't know. "You mean you're their teacher and you don't know their names?" An awkward pause followed. Eventually I told him the truth. "Don't be silly, everyone is welcome to stay at my hotel," the keeper said. I apologized profusely, and felt terrible for both having lied to someone--and getting caught--and for having been deceived by others. I squeezed on to the overflowing bus back out to Gasa, and upon my arrival walked the last few kilometers to Manguanshun.
Upon meeting my friend, whose name was Ai, we immediately took a tractor ride back to Gasa to deliver dinner to the monks at the temple there. Then we bumped along back passed the village to another village where we were to fetch a movie and projector. Then we rattled back to Gasa when we were told the projector was in fact left there. Then, finally, we went back to Manguanshun village.
While quietly sipping water, dinner was on the stove in the corner; spicy beef, fish, sour vegetables, fried cabbage, and raw cabbage with dip. The Dai eat glutinous rice, which they pick up with their hands and roll into a ball. We got drunk on Baijiu. And as the night drew on, we became drunker and drunker. Later, we went to take a look at the movie, being shown in a large clearing. The whole village was gathered around under the stars staring blankly at this banal revolutionary melodrama. The incongruities were startling. In the dark country night, amid the cackling chickens, and the howling wolves, was this "reflection emission machine" pumping out stale black and white images from thirty-five years ago; images a world away from the lives of the Dai people. In my drunken state, I was in no mood to linger, so I walked back to the house and went to sleep. Between the intermittent rustling and squeaking of mice in the corners, and the all-too-frequent buzzing of mosquitoes in my ears, I didn't sleep too well.
Sitting around the fire, the sun just coming up, fish frying, the village coming to life, we ate our breakfast. The only indication of the twentieth century was the single light bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling. It was no dream, no nightmare, but in my early morning grogginess, I went 'round the back to do my morning duty. Finding a secluded spot, I began. All of a sudden a great pig appeared through the bushes and headed my way. As I was still half asleep, and couldn't see well in the mist of dawn, I just picked myself up and moved to another spot. Then it happened. I started hearing munch munch munch. That crazy pig was turning my dinner from the previous night into its breakfast! This was not an act of desperation--it was attracted by the smell and made a B-line!
It was a slow, restful morning, although I didn't expect that even out here people would wake up to the sound of a blaring loudspeaker espousing socialist ideals, as they do in the cities. Later that morning we took a walk to a neighboring village. A ceremony was just getting underway at the temple. People were chanting in turn, the elders interrupting to correct mistakes.
People approached lit incense, while others just sat on the ground, hands praying, bobbing up and down. Old women gossiped back and forth like cackling chickens. We then went on to the next village, visiting Ai's school and schoolmaster. We relaxed for the remainder of the day, chatting, taking a meal, reading books. We then went over to this village's temple. Beautiful embroidered tapestries were hanging down from the thirty foot ceilings. Admiring them, I asked if I could buy one to show my friends back home. We settled on a price. As a little monk prepared to climb the temple walls to take the streamer down, he faced the Buddha, got down on his hands and knees, and said a little prayer. Then up, up, up he went, releasing two of the tapestries, as they streamed to the floor like a ribbon.
Around seven we went back to the schoolmaster's home. Dinner was being prepared, and relaxation set in. The animals were grunting and clucking, the fire snapping and crackling, the wood and metal cookware clinking, and throughout permeated the hypnotic drone of Dai chanting from off in the distance: just a droning male voice and a one-stringed instrument playing in a decidedly un-Chinese manner; more Middle Eastern, actually. Over dinner we gave each other language lessons. I now know all the basics of the Dai language: "Ging lao"--"let's drink," "Ging hao"--"let's eat," "Guo yang"--"I hate mosquitos": all the basics. Ai told me Dai has three tones: high tone, falling-to-rising tone, and falling-to-rising-high tone. Their unique script, echoing the curvilinear patterns the Dai employ when ornamenting their temples, was instituted in 1953, replacing Burmese. At about eleven, under the crystal clear night, with the help of a bright and beautiful half-moon, we headed back to Ai's place.
The next day I was on my own, as Ai had a chore out of town. I went off around the back off the village into the rice fields beyond. I took a long walk through the fields to a little village with a temple perched above it on a hill. Up at the temple, all the little monks were fooling around, slinging rubberbands, singing "Ali Baba," the latest pop hit from Shanghai: "Ali! Ali Baba! Ali Baba is a happy youth!" They were excited upon my arrival, but things quickly settled down.
They said they didn't understand Chinese, but if you persist, they'll even speak a bit for you. I lingered for a few hours, took some pictures, and at about two headed back home to Ai's place.
That evening, after ELO's "Last Train to London" was turned off the village sound system, the chanting began, and my mood was set. I went out to investigate the source of the music, but just then Ai came back. He said a neighbor has some tapes of Dai music I can copy, so we went across. Over the stirring drone, Ai told me about the town of Damenlong, a few kilometers down the road. He said people from all over the area, including from across the border in Burma, come to the market there. When I asked how the Dai feel about their minority status, Ai told me he doesn't think it would be good if the Dai had complete autonomy--they need China's technology and guidance.
The Dai have a nice life. They have clean, comfortable homes where nothing is wasted. Food is eaten until it's gone. Scraps get swept off the mats through the cracks in the slatted floor down to the earth below, where the animals eat them. If you need to pee, just go off the edge of the landing. If you need to shit, you just go 'round back and shit. The pigs, as I had learned, will take care of the rest. That next morning, after buying some embroidered bed mats from the family, I said goodbye, and headed back towards town. I walked back to Gasa, and eventually hitched a ride on the back of a tractor all the way back to Jinghong, where I immediately bought a bus ticket back to Simao for the next morning.
That next afternoon in Simao, the airline ticket office was just a mess. The office closes for lunch, re-opening at 2:30. At 2:20 everyone was pushing at the front door, Chinese and foreigners alike. At 2:30, as the doors opened, everyone pushed and shoved and scrambled for position. Somehow, I managed to get a counter spot. I had heard flights were booked until the end of the month, and I wanted to go up the next day. I didn't even have a reservation. Even a reservation is no guarantee--not in China. But I had nothing better to do, and so I wasn't about to relinquish my counter spot for anything. For an hour and a half I waited at that counter being pushed and shoved and squeezed and leaned on and leaned over. This hefty woman issuing tickets was one tough mama. I was not looking forward with optimism to our inevitable interaction. Finally, when all the reservations were taken care of, and all the tickets were issued, I meekly asked over the raucous if there were any tickets left for the next day or the day after. "No! All sold!" And that was that. An hour and a half of torture for "No!" I ran over to the bus station and bought a ticket for the next day--a two day journey back to Kunming. But I decided to then go back to the airline office. I had nothing better to do, and as I had learned, no one knows when a ticket might suddenly "pop up." I squeezed through everyone, and handed my work card to the big woman's assistant, and elderly gent of much less intimidating stature. "I'll be sitting over there. If any tickets become available, please let me know." The place was still a madhouse. So I waited. 4:30, 5:00, 5:30, 6:00. At 6:10 all eyes turned around toward me, and I'm called over. I held my breath as the masses cleared a space for me at the exalted counter. A ticket for the next day's afternoon flight was bestowed upon me. I was overcome with a combination of elation and embarrassment. I humbly paid, and departed from the office. I immediately ran to the bus station, returned my ticket, and headed over to the little hotel I stayed in on the way down. They had no rooms left, but they knew me from before, they said they'd squeeze me in somewhere. Another evening of roaring drunkenness ensued.
Back in Kunming I had time that next evening to buy a next-day ticket for Xiaguan, a small city twelve hours west of Kunming. I also canceled my train reservation to Shanghai, and instead booked a flight. I decided that a two and a half hour flight compared to a sixty hour train ride is worth the extra cost. The following morning I was combating diarrhea, but decided to risk the twelve hour bus journey. My stomach didn't feel too steady, and I felt a bit nauseated. It was only when we stopped for lunch in the town of Chuxiong that I realized I was quite sick. I had fever and chills. Walking the streets of Chuxiong, I stopped and asked a friendly face where the nearest doctor's office was. He took me across the street to a clinic where I immediately got a check-up, a diagnosis, a prescription, and my medication--all in under fifteen minutes. Diagnosis? A cold. In China you could have allergy or pneumonia, but it's still just a cold.
The next five hours were murder. I was running a high fever, I ached all over, and there I was on that bus finding it utterly impossible to discover a position in which my body could feel comfortable for more than five minutes at a time. People knew I was sick, but no one seemed to care. Chinese people never looked more sour, more bitter. A horrible woman sitting across from me threw up all over the place, including on to my pack. A fat ugly man sitting in front of me disgusted me by his mere presence. When we finally arrived, I found a hotel, informed the front desk I was sick, then went upstairs and slept from four until nine. When I woke up I felt somewhat better. At ten, some staff, a boy and a girl, came in to check up on me. They brought me some chicken noodle soup--the universal remedy--and suggested I get more rest. Just the fact that people showed some concern made me feel that much better; they refused payment for the soup.
I was feeling much better in the morning. So I left Xiaguan and took the bus up to Dali, a picturesque lakeside town, home of the Bai minority. I walked around town a little bit, but decided I still needed to rest. After a three hour nap, I went for a massage at a nearby parlour that turned out to be rather disappointing. I was looking forward to a relaxing, high-inducing experience, but instead it was like getting beat up for half an hour. Also, this guy kept on having conversations while he was working on me. This wouldn't have been a problem, except that he was a deaf mute and spoke in sign language. After a poor night's sleep I had a complete relapse, and so went back to Xiaguan, and eventually decided to go the hospital.
And I can't believe what I let them do to me! The hospital was not very clean. After filling out a series of forms, I was brought to the doctor's office. Diagnosis? Cold. Treatment? Two needles. So I was escorted to the needle department. In front of everyone, my pants came down, and in went the needle. All eyes stare in wonderment, big, small, male, female. They escorted me to the inner room. The doctor took a six inch vile and prepared some sort of solution amidst the dirt, the sick people. In went the needle, into my arm. One might wonder why this particular treatment required isolation, while the needle into my rear-end didn't. A cleaning woman, observing the scene from the far corner of the room, walked over, filled dustpan in hand. She advised me not to breathe on the needle, in order to keep things hygienic, and spit on the floor, away from the proceedings, perhaps for emphasis. Five minutes later it was over. They gave me cough medicine and various pills, but I pretty much stayed with my aspirin. My being sick no doubt tainted my stay in Xiaguan. There were very few enjoyable moments. My roommate in the hotel really got on my nerves, spitting anywhere and everywhere, including on the floor right below where I lay my head. That next morning, as I lay in bed, he leaned out the window to let a gob fly. I turned to the wall in order to avoid the show, but alas, the sun cast a perfect shadow of the entire event for my spit-weary eyes to behold.
It was high time I got back to Kunming. The bus ride did little to improve my mood. Five women threw up. A suitcase fell from the overhead rack onto my head, cutting my forehead and bending my glasses. There were several delays, the last of which, I am sorry to say, was my fault. Not an hour out of Kunming we stopped for refueling. According to national regulations, all passengers must alight. I bought a soda from a private stall. A little boy was going around collecting all the finished soda bottles, and was so eager to have my bottle even before I was finished drinking, that I, with my attitude what it was, took my slowest, sweetest time finishing the thing. I was so intent on having the boy wait in agony for my bottle, that I didn't realize the bus was all set and loaded, the driver honking the horn to get my attention. I was thoroughly embarrassed as I boarded the bus out of breath.
Arriving in Kunming, I went directly to the airline office in the hopes of switching my ticket from two days hence to the next day. The office had just closed for the day, so I sneeked around back, and found an open door. Stepping through, I found a young woman just finishing up her paperwork. I asked if there might just be one more ticket to Shanghai on the next day's flight. "Just a minute, I'll check," she said to my complete surprise. Checking her books, she asked me how many I needed.
"You can have the last one. Is that okay?"
The flight was fine, and getting a taxi to take me clear across the city from Hongqiao to Jiangwan was unexpectedly easy. Making our way through the throngs of Shanghai, the millions ebbing and flowing around me, I no longer felt like a traveler. I felt like I was home again. What a thrill to be back in my own city! What a pleasure to risk life and limb on its overcrowded streets once again! To drink its disgusting water! To breathe its poison air! To squeeze on to its packed buses!
What a privilege to call Shanghai home!