Sorry about the delays, I am having a lot of trouble accessing the page in the rural areas.
I think I can say, with some assurance, that I’d be hard-pressed to find myself more comfortable than I am right now. It’s raining over Lijian—has been ever since we got here last night—and my sister is still sleeping, so I’ve taken my laptop outside to a wicker chair in the hotel's small courtyard. Bathing in rust-colored red from the elegantly carved wooden balconies, depicting a wild morass of fantastical cranes and peacocks, and the silk hanging lanterns, I try to decipher the inscriptions in Chinese script winding their gold way from the tops of columns to the bottom. A big, gurgling stone dragon waters a pebble-lined pond, and I’m filled with admiration for this distinct aesthetic style so unfamiliar yet so stately and serene. On my other side I’m flanked by a big window through which I can see Lijian hurrying about under umbrellas or plastic sheets. A man under a shop awning is hammering out engravings on a bell, so backing the beat of my headphones is the sound of his hammer on the anvil.
Old women, bent double but walking assuredly and strong, carry bamboo baskets piled high with lettuce and leek from the mountains, uniting umbrellas with others for a few words before moving on. A man bicycles by with a plastic shopping bag on each handlebar bulbous with loose eggs, narrowly missing a man in a Mao uniform who’s smoking a cigarette and staring at me. There’s a wok on the cobblestones slowly filling with rainwater. Idyllic? Well, I’ve left out the Chinese tour groups, for poesy’s sake (though this province is too remote for all but a few). But the jist is unadulterated.
We’ve come to my favorite part of the trip: scenery time. Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an: all impressive, exciting, gigantic, intense. But boy is there more to this country than that. The past two days we’ve taken long transitive bus rides, seven hours the first day and three and a half the next. Caroline and my mom begin by closing the curtains to watch the Friends DVDs we bought in Shanghai on my laptop (although to be fair, after a few episodes they shut it off), but my dad and I, panorama whores that we are, jockey for positions in the front of the bus, where he skitters around filming and I sit back contentedly with my Ipod, watching the green mosaic of rice paddies and the brown cloud of the towns unfold.
Leaving Kunming the streets were modern and asphalted, but shortly
after the city ended, the road did too. The next five hours we drove
across a broad rocky thoroughfare, jolted like gravel in a cement
mixer; vibration so continuous made the rubber band wrapped tightly
around my ponytail slide slowly out of my hair three times. Lacking
lane lines, the drivers made improvisation (if not ‘demolition derby’)
their M.O. No one stayed on the right, because the right was full of
potholes. But the left was too, and so was the center. So for several
hundred kilometers we wove between boulders and puddles. Sometimes the
road split, and drivers who knew the way took the softer (“softer”)
route, even if it meant heading straight for oncoming traffic. Oncoming
traffic understood, though. Successful travel on roads like these is a
matter of collective cooperation.
We passed several hundred workers sitting on the floor with
pickaxes, hacking away at the earth. Several hundred more, working to
build anti-rockslide walls as we passed through mountainous areas,
formed ten-man vertical lines to pass buckets of concrete to the top,
hand to hand. Others stood on the side with hoes, flattening down the
dirt and dust (although every passing car makes this effort somewhat
futile). Evidently the road had been under construction for some
time—but completion looked as if it’d take some time longer. (Although
I bet cynically that McDonald’s opens in Da Li before the asphalt
sets….) Along the way we stopped to pick up some passengers from a bus
that had broken down, two young woman with Band-Aids over their eyes
who hobbled up the steps blindly, arms flailing for railings. My guess
is that they’d either gotten eyeliner tattooed on, or they’d just come
from eye-widening surgery, a procedure many Asian women get to
‘Westernize’ the shape of their eyes. We ice cubes in this Korean
deluxe martini shaker bounced along, kicking up unholy clouds of Yunnan
province dust (when we later lugged our bags out of storage, they were
unrecognizably powdered white). The playlist: Orishas, Sahara Lounge,
Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, and all the songs in my library that start
with S, excepting the Sonatas. Divine.
The ride from Da Li to Lijian the next day was asphalted and thus
lined with a great parade of people: selling fruit, hitching rides,
drying rice, walking home. I had the good luck of sitting on the
fold-down seat next to the bus driver, who sported, along with his
sunglasses and sideways red baseball cap, the pimpest mustache I’ve
seen yet on a Chinese man. My view of the road thus unobstructed by the
yellow curtains (who decorates buses?) and the laughtrack of the
Chinese comedy blocked out by the Grateful Dead, I sat back to enjoy
the winding journey.
I wish I had taken notes, because I saw so much I wanted to write
about and today all I remember of those few hours is a gold-and-green
glow greatly lacking in specificity. The sun was out for just about the
first time since we’ve come to China, and it suffused the fields with a
unique quality of light that made me feel as though bathing in a great
pot of warmth. Mostly we drove through the mountains, exhilarating
glorious curves into the great wide open, the bus as if getting ready
to detach from the road and fly off over the people in the fields
below, barely ladybugs on a lawn. The alternating rice paddies and
cornfields melded into a sinuous checkerboard, blinking green. Down in
the valley we drove right through them, the road an elevated wire
stretching between land and land, with nothing but swamp surrounding.
Farmers dipped big ladles—wooden handles, aluminum dippers—into the
water to fling into rice patches. In one a dead pig lay legs up, sinews
drawn tight in rigor mortis. Near others, water buffalo lounged in mud
like content hippopotami.
Donkeys carried impossible loads, as did people, looking from behind
like huge, mobile bales of hay. We passed little roadside Buddhas
emanating smoke from incense sticks, and communal bathrooms, the
Chinese characters for “man” and “woman” spray-painted crookedly on the
whitewashed cement. Babies in slings bopped along carried by women in
elaborate hats—beaded crowns, embroidered flying-buttress-like
headgear, and navy blue bonnets adorned with bronze coins and red
ribbons. Their school-aged siblings wore tracksuits, the standard
school uniform. Adults not wearing traditional or Western gear walked
about in Maoist suits and olive caps, far more frequently than they
still do in cities. People walked slowly, or rode—sometimes two or
three to a bicycle—unperturbed by the bus’s warning honk. One
jump-roped in place, another read as he walked.
along the vast expanse, people bent over rice paddies, their backs
colored buttons sprinkled across the green. That color—I keep coming
back to it, it’s what I remember most clearly. It was electric! Even
behind the dirty bus windows, behind my sunglasses, and once the sun
was gone, that green breadth was still so patently alive, almost
animate. It looked like it was breathing.
We slowed down once, to pass a group of people peering over a gulch
where a crane was hoisting something up. Ah, a bus had taken a turn too
quickly. Right. The tempo continued more temperately after that. Once
we approached Lijian the day was over and a huge black monsoon cloud
hung over the city—in fact, it’s been raining ever since. But the
gold-green glow has stayed with me, the brawny mass of tangled
mountains and wakened fields.
The last thing of note that day was our dinner. I’ve been uncharacteristically tacit about the food we’re eating because, well, I don’t really like it. We’ve tasted what members of my family have alternately characterized as “fetus juice,” “burnt grease,” and “aftertaste of vomit.” Mostly I blame this on us not knowing where to go and how to order (menus are all in Chinese, and if they’re translated it’s like, “Fish Soup Sour And Pungent”). Nevertheless, we hit a new low last night, when Caroline noticed a claw in my dad’s fried chicken. In her sleep last night, an occasion she often takes to vocally review the day’s events, she blurted out an “Ew! Ew ew ew!” which I think we can attribute to the claw. John, Judy, Alexand Mike, I hope you guys can order in Vietnamese/Korean.