[Muslim Quarter, Xian]
[Sydney Harbour Bridge]
To say Chinese hospitality is generous would be like saying Pandas enjoy bamboo as a light starter. Now and again. If the mood takes them. Not everyday though, obviously; you want a bit of variety in your diet. Lazy bloody Pandas.
Cycling through the city of Hanzhong between Xian and Chengdu late one afternoon looking for a reasonably priced place to stay, a guy pulls up alongside on a moped and invites me back to his place.
I give him the once over, decide he doesn’t want to drug me and farm my organs and agree. He raises his head to the sky and thanks God. Surely it should be me offering up thanks to the almighty.
I am the proverbial kitten that keeps landing on nimble little paws: Guo is the owner of a hotpot restaurant, and shortly after meeting I have a beer in front of me and a bubbling pot of spicey broth that I am timidly throwing bits of meat and vegetable into.
Chinglish is my new favourite language: I talked to Guo via a translation app on his phone. At one point in our electronically translated conversation he asks if I want to ‘wash and gargle’. I agree and we head to the public baths, as most residential high-rises in the city don’t have their own showers.
After showering together Guo offers up half of his double bed (whoa, where’s this going Guo?) I accept and enjoy a sound night’s sleep. He probably didn’t - I snore like a bastard.
Onto a good thing I decide to stay another night. Guo’s friends invite me to walk in the hills near the city and I agree; tired, but too polite to say no.
At the top two students from the nearby university are resting after the climb. “Hey, my friend want to talk to you.”
Her friend Nancy was from Chongqing and in her fourth and final year studying English, looking for work as an interpreter. I thought I was onto a winner when she said she liked war movies but when she spelt out ‘warm’ I was a little discouraged.
In bed with Guo the next morning; he, sat up smoking a cigarette, his eyes cast upwards in thought, declares: “You should be in Chengdu for Christmas.”
It was Christmas Eve and Chengdu – home of the culinary adventurous panda – was 450 kilometres away. I’d given up being anywhere specific for Christmas.
“You take bus.”
“And my bike.”
“Put on bus.”
Guo has an ever so slight and quite appealing lisp.
A short walk to the bus stop, 100 yuan to put my bike in the baggage hold and I am saying goodbye to Guo. He showers me with packets of double happiness cigarettes as a parting gift.
Remember what I said about being a nimble little kitten?
Arriving at Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel in Chengdu, I was invited by the receptionist to a free Christmas Eve Dinner. Raising my head to the heavens I thanked my Guo for putting me on that bus.
I sat down for Christmas dinner with two Canadians, Fahad and John. The talk in the hostel’s bar, where we ate our dinner – I resisted complaining to the hard pressed Christmas dinner cooks about a lack of gravy and sprouts – was of heading to ‘CC Club’ that night where there would be free drinks!
A Finnish man in a suit, his tieless shirt buttoned up to the neck comes up to me and delivers what I think is the strangest opener I have ever heard: “Are we still alive?” I believe he had been drinking. Only realised later he was referring to the Mayan calender and it’s predicted end of the world.
I say I’m not going. Out of a sense of loyalty to their British overlord, F and J say they’re not bothered about going either, but as the bar empties of high spirited travellers and a fair portion of the Chinese staff I can see these colonials want to party.
We jump into a taxi with the Finnish doomsayer, Remi, who by happy chance is near fluent in Chinese and directs the driver to our destination – their conversation is punctuated with barks, mostly from Remi. He turns to us in the back and explains this is how they communicate and demonstrates by giving a non-sequitar bark to the unfazed taximan.
After what seems like a drink-less eternity I go to the bar and ask for a beer. 80 quai. Sod that, I take a walk around the shopping complex the Club is in and get taken on an impromptu guided tour of a high end restaurant by the owner. He proudly shows me a private room, everything gilded with gold leaf, even the adjoining toilet.
I return to the club and the mood has changed: free drinks have arrived. Farhad screams “ITS ONNNNNN!!!!” or words to that effect and begins mixing whiskey and sweat cold tea.
Many theories abound as to why we are drinking for free: the esteem the club receives from having smelly western backpackers in the club; it’s Christmas; or they are not free and we would have to do a runner at some point.
My favourite explanation, given to me by an American student from Beijing, is that we are ‘the bait’: Western men attract Chinese women, who in turn attract Chinese men. It seemed like a reasonable deal.
My memories of the club are vague, but I remember at one point a Chinese boy band dressed as SWAT police dancing on a stage with Kalashnikovs aping some sort of military drill followed by a singer in a multi-coloured bikini climbing across the bar smiling and singing sweetly as she groped her way round bottles of knock jack Daniels and Jim Bean.
Lots of ex-pats in China, most head to the same bars and clubs. A fuzzy haired young Frenchmen lifted the lady -who took the above photo - with a group of us outside the club. Probably the drunkest person I have ever seen; he was miraculously still standing. Just – he was staggering around as if on the deck of a ship caught in a cyclone whilst a giant invisible hand pulled him back and forth. I could have watched him for days.
Now I am not saying I don’t like pandas, but to be honest I really don’t see the point of them. What about Chinese tigers? Surely they are a lot more interesting. They actually hunt for food and mate without human assistance. Most people come to Chengdu to see the Pandas that do…pretty much nothing. They eat bamboo, a food source so lacking in nutrients they spend their waking lives eating the stuff, leaving little time to do anything else.
But the panda is smarter than we give them credit. And this is why I am a little weary of them too. They have evolved into cuddly, affable, bumbling creatures so a more intelligent animal – us - with a weakness for cute and fury monochrome freeloaders will feed and help them with the chore of reproducing.
The panda is also caught up in international politics, much to it’s discredit. Call me paranoid, but I think the conspiracy leads back to the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party who happily loan the panda to foreign zoos to help with their own breeding programmes. Soon the Panda will be everywhere. Waiting for the signal from Beijing to launch a black and white insurgency from within. The Panda will head for the power stations, water supplies, communication hubs, airports, and possibly garden centres for a nibble on a bit of bamboo. Their under-developed non-dexterous bamboo striping thumb is literally on the red button.
A good crowd for Christmas dinner, including Farhad and John; Henry (also cycling the world); Reimi; five Belgium girls - whose lively orbit snared many a man-traveller; and Neil - who had inexcusably caught the train from Xian. Street kitchen food is excellent in China.
Neil told the girls from Belgium I looked like the drummer from pre-pubescent muck peddlers Hanson. They thought this was bloody hilarious and began belting out mmm-bop. I looked at Neil and caught that malignant twinkle in his eye. The fires of hell burned a little beyond. I hate you Neil.
The festivities continued into the New Year. All this partying was tiring me out. I headed south and visited the giant Buddha of Leshan.
The Buddha was the idea of a monk who thought it’s presence would calm the river it silently watches. It worked: rock and soil excavated during the work was dumped in the river, choking it’s flow. The Buddha is the largest in the world since the Talib blew the one up in Bamiyan. Another Panda intrigue, probably.
I was joined by Amanda, an American working as a business teacher in nearby Mingyang.
After a lot of talking as we walked round the Buddha and it’s monasteries we went to Yang’s Restaurant in downtown Leshan.
Richard Yang’s life story is typical of the educated during the cultural revolution. Fluent in English – taught as a boy by missionaries in Leshan during the twenties – at university he studied Russian and then geology, but fear and suspicion on the part of the communist party forced the intelligentsia to work in fields and factories as part of an ill conceived and wasteful re-education programme. Richard spent two years on a farm.
As he served us food cooked by his wife – the aubergine was excellent - and he unraveled his life story I was struck by his serenity. Any trace of bitterness, at how his life had been disrupted I could not detect.
As we ate, a boy sat at another table silently studying English under Mr Yang’s tutelage.
From Leshan I cycled the short distance to Emei Shan, a mountain I had developed an inexplicable desire to climb.
I fell in step with a student on her first trip alone and we climbed to the top together.
Our climb passed an area called ‘Joking Monkey Zone’, but ‘Thieving Monkey Zone’ would have been more accurate. One simian snatched Wu Lang Fang’s water bottle and scurried up a nearby tree trunk before it could be retrieved.
Another snatched my bottle of Cola and bit me on the calf when I tried to claim it back. Git.
It would take two days to reach the top so we slept in a freezing monastery at the half way point. I hit my head on an ancient temple bell hanging from the ceiling, only to repeat the act half an hour later.
The snow thickened the higher we climbed – the mountain is over 3,000 metres and as we reached the summit the wind picked up making the ascent chilly to say the least. I lent Wu Lang Fang my spare pair of gloves.
At the summit, above the clouds, is the the Buddhist icon Samantabhadra, an enlightened being.
Emei Shan is one of China’s four holy mountains, itself a bodhimaṇḍa, or place of enlightenment.
The summit was busy with people who had taken the bus two-thirds of the way up, then a cable car, leaving an ascent of under 500m.
Those who had taken the spiritual short cut could buy jade Buddha's in the souvenir shop, or stay at a hotel to catch the sun rise above the clouds.
We both decided the hotel was too expensive and took the cable car and then the bus back to the bottom.
A few days later I was climbing again, this time by bicycle, between the towns of Ebian and Meigu in Sichuan Province. I had to change my route at Ebian, a quiet - for Chinese standards – little town on the banks of the Dadu river, as my route to Lake Lugu and Yunnan province was blocked by the Chinese Army. The alternative road would be longer, Higher and colder.
I started late on the hardest day’s climb through a mountain valley after spending the whole morning trying to fix punctures; breaking two inner tubes in the process – worryingly, I now had no spares.
The deteriorating road that clung to the side of the valley was covered in a layer of fresh snow. As I got higher, snow clouds descended and I could no longer see the other side of the valley or the pass above that would get me out.
It was getting dark when the snow began to fall. The pass was nowhere in sight. I was desperate for the climb to end and the descent to start, but I knew with the snow building up, the ride downhill would not be it’s usual fun.
In darkness I reached the top. The road had been cut through the end of the valley at it’s highest point. Weirdly, I salaamed the sign that announced you had reached the top. Out of respect possibly.
With both hands on the breaks and one foot on the ground to slow my speed, I started my descent. Going 10kph I skidded and fell, ripping my trousers and cutting my knee. The bike had fallen on me and I lay on my back in the dark watching large snowflakes silently fall.
What the hell am I doing? I thought, and began laughing out loud. I decided it would be safer to push my bike.
An hour later I came to the first village this side of the mountain. I was greeted by the challenge of a guard dog, his fluorescent green eyes lit up in my torchlight. Soon every dog in the village was barking.
A man and his young son came out to see what was what. I asked if there was a guesthouse nearby and with a downward slicing motion of a hand indicated there were none. His son threw a stone at me as I headed off.
Out of the village, an old lady with a whicker basket appeared from nowhere. Recovering, in Chinese I said ‘Hello, I am from England.’ I heard her cackle behind me as we passed.
I pushed on, not sure what to do. I came across a small unused building by the roadside and decided to call it a day.
Inside there was just enough room for me and my bike; the dirt floor covered in litter. I went to sleep happy.
Later I showed the above picture to someone who told me the Chinese symbols written in red said, ‘please put rubbish here.’
Several villagers poked their head through the open window as I packed to leave in the morning.
I took pictures of the locals wearing their blue, tasseled capes outside a building with the Chinese flag flapping in the wind upside down. A small act of defiance or ignorance? I couldn’t decide. This village was friendlier and I warmed my hands on a wood fire outside the local shop.
The old lady owner smoked: first time I had seen a women smoke in a long time. A group gathered to inspect me and my bike and I mimed yesterday’s adventure, showing them my cut knee to gain some sympathy. These people were not Han Chinese, they were the Yi People, an ethnic minority of Tibetan origin, the hills and mountains of Sichuan province they had made their home.
Houses in villages are mostly one storey, the walls plastered white, the roofs covered with red tiles. Corn cobs hang under the eaves, and behind are wooden support beams carved like totem poles painted bright red and yellow.
As the women sit and rub dried corn cobs together to feed the animals and young boys tend flocks of small black and white goats, young men hang out at the local village shop playing pool, the baize faded in the sun. Groups of men sip beer from green bottles; the smashed empties I was continuously swerving to avoid.
The Yi people are animistic: between the river and road I saw a dead dog attached to a poll with rams horns scattered at the base together with bundles of dried grass. This ritual may have been the result of a death in a local family or possibly Yippey had humped too many people’s legs. I couldn’t be sure.
Chinese hospitality was kept apace in the small town of Zhaojue a town remarkable for being unremarkable where a traveling rabbit feed salesman helped me fix my bike and fed me.
The rabbit food seller pointed to a passing lorry full of sad looking dogs. Apparently eating dog meat keeps you warm in winter.
We took my tube to the wheel barrow repair man, who had a side venture in fixing bicycles; his open fronted shop cavernous and dark, with spare parts to the ceiling. I find watching a tradesman at work therapeutic. I once watched in a comfortable trance a deaf cobbler in Dushanbe sew and glue my boots back together. The competent actions borne from a million attempts assures me there are people in this world that know what they are doing, their limited sphere irrelevant.
I couldn’t pay for the repairs, both the rabbit food salesman and the owners nephew thrust money into the barrow man’s hand before I could put a hand to my own pocket.
I stayed two nights, I needed a rest. Rabbit feed seller was heading to the same city as I was; Xichang. Thirty kilometers out of the town having a break by the side of the road he pulls up on his motorbike and offers to tow me. I decline the offer saying it’s too dangerous and that I am scared. He then follows me for several kilometers matching my speed of around 15kph.
A climb appears ahead, and I float the question: “how would you tow me?” He pulls a 7 foot bungee cord out of a box and begins winding it up to reduce stretch. “I trust you”, I say without enthusiasm.
Going at 20kph he pulls me up the mountain, I peddle a bit to make myself feel less of a cheat, and in two hours we have climbed further than I would have in a day. I counted three police cars pass us, none taking the slightest notice.
We descend the other side of the mountain and the weather and landscape change – one side of the mountain is covered in brown grass and the weather is chilly but now the sun’s rays in a clear sky feel warm on my face and a beautiful pine forest stretches out below us. I hadn’t realized my spirits were low, what with the cold, but now they are soaring with the warmth.
Xichang is a beautiful little city, the locals call it ‘moon city’.
The full moon is up above the tall buildings of the city centre, all clad in large white marble tiles. RFS tells me the city is called ‘moon city’ and tells me a myth about the king of the sky giving a Princess a pill that transports her to the moon.
I pay for dinner that night, happy to have paid back some of the generosity I have received.
And then a two day ride through narrow gorges to the Alpine Lake Lugu. The weather is warm.
The houses are now all log cabins, naturally, as pine trees are in abundance here. I sleep behind an abandoned one by the side of the road. I fetch water to cook noodles from the river; clambering over several boulders to get close enough to a running source. On the opposite bank is a hill covered in trees. On top a young boy is singing - for my benefit or not I do not know. As a golden sun drops behind the mountain, I see the silhouette of a women I presume is his mum, eyeing me up, weighing whether I am a problem.
Sometimes, when I find the going tuff I gently encourage myself on, saying out loud, softly: “come on, come on”, but the last day to Lugu I was hoarse shouting at myself, cursing the road, the dust, my aching limbs, and the Lake that kept failing to appear around the next corner.
My anger had not gone when I got to a barrier across the road blocking the way to the lake. A group of men at the toll office squatted round a low table playing cards, briefly pausing to stiffly turn their fat necks towards me for a lazy up and down before returning to slap down a card. I’m paying so you can play cards? Sometimes China…
I drank long into the night with the owner of the guesthouse’s friend who ran a bar on the waterfront. He dressed me as Thor and showed me pictures of his cross-dressing brother, who had been turned down for a role in a popular Chinese comedy film because he refused to sleep with the director. It was a strange night. I left early the next morning for Lijiang.