Train from Lijiang to Guangzhou

Catching a cold in the high elevations of Yunnan must be all too common. The second the brakes lift and the train from Lijiang shoves off for its thirty-three hour descent into the Pearl River Delta, the cabins erupt in gastric burps, coughs and farts.

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A young, spunky domestic tourists asks me to change seats so she can sit closer to her three other girlfriends. Her English has an impatient jabber; her sentences last only as long as the train’s horn echoing against the mountains. “Please. Please. please-can-you-change-seat-with-my-friend-so-I-sleep-here-now. Please?”

I break the flaneur rules, and scold her. “No. Take a chance. Meet someone new. If you really want to travel, you don’t need to take a train. Just talk to the stranger next to you.”

She looks shocked and confused, though I believe she understands the words, just not the intention.

“si ge ren,” I say, meaning “we’re a group of four.” The others stand up: Blake the Aussie, Mike the Greek and Lucky the Parisian. It’s the four of us staring her away.

Rice paddies

Rice paddies

At the stop in Kunming, a thin woman dressed in a black skirt and a tight black top stops at our cubby of bunkbeds, observes us four foreigners glancing at her, as well as the other Chinese, and the domestic tourists, and the train security, and the other women who give her menacing glares. She has no baggage, just a purse and a plastic bag full of ramen and water. As if to deny our eyes, her long straight hair refracts the sun, and we all shield ourselves from the rays.

Her cell phone rings a song in English: “Kiss me on the train, kiss me in the rain.”

Lucky whispers something to himself in French.

“Good Lord,” Blake whispers.

The woman turns to spider-climb her way to the top bunk, all four limbs balancing on the grip-pads next to her, while the train watches.

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I start practicing Chinese with the man next to me. He has green streaks in his hair, a cut-up leather pocket hanging from his left side, and studs on his shirt that make a skull. We’re talking about hobbies, when he hits me with that familiar question: “ni de mama cong nali lai? Guangzhou ren ma?” (Where is your mom from? Is she Chinese?)

What he means is: “what race are you?” To do so politely, Chinese (and everywhere I’ve been in Asia) ask if my mom is Asian, never my dad. Somehow, it’s clear that my mother was the source of the darker gene. I get the question “what are you?” so often, especially outside the U.S., that to supplement it with “and your mother must have been the Asian” feels like a small fire after a wrecking ball has already demolished everything.

“Wow!” Lucky yells, stunned by the scenery. A waterfall bursts through a mountain, spilling into a river valley like an abscess. The train chugs high above the villages, hills and rivers below.  Lucky’s camera goes “click-click-click” in a machinegun’s rapid tat-tat-tat.

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We pass through a tunnel. Darkness blankets us. We burst out like a meteor propelling through different moments in history; we gaze up at the mountains above us like they are gods permitting us to pass. Then a dark tunnel. Darkness fogs the air. Then back out, shooting past mist hovering over lakes, past tall bare mountains silhouetted to look like ghosts. Abandoned, they plead for us to stay, but we follow the river. Then into a tunnel.

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We stare at the scenery for hours; the whole cabin, the whole train, mesmerized by the fleeting, infinite beauty of it. A hike up a mountain lets one meditate upon a view, but these mountains shoot by like polygon jets in Star Fox. And Lucky, equipped only with his Canon camera, cannot shoot them all. He pushes his camera lens onto the window glass to focus on the mountains and not the glass stains. He folds his hands around the camera’s edges to keep out the glare. When we enter a tunnel, he cycles through old pictures, choosing which ones to delete, hoping to open more room for the next cascade.

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Twelve hours into the ride, as the sun begins to set, a waterfall passes just below us, its thick stream like tea pouring from a kettle towards a vertigo-inducing drop. All the Chinese scream “Oh!” as if they have just got a glimpse of the afterlife. But Lucky’s camera misses it.

“God damn it!” Lucky screams, his left hand gripping his right to keep from tossing the camera down the hallway. “It’s that god damn glare!” Frustrated, he tells me to ask the lady from the middle bunk to turn off her reading light, so the barely-visible glare comes off the window.

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The locals and domestic tourists start making ramen, tossing in crushed-up sausage, spicy chicken feet and preserved eggs. Mike makes one himself, starts shaking his head, hating how good everything tastes. “Even their shitty food is amazing!” he says in an ecstatic plea to god. “So much better than crap-tastic India!”

The rest of us, Blake, Lucky and I, were not smart enough to bring ramen. We eat fiber biscuits. And the water I bought at the last train stall tastes like medicine—it must not be water. Twenty hours to go.

And Blake says: “I’m just glad we have something to eat other than Yunnan mushrooms. So done with mushrooms. You’d think oppressed minority cultures could make better food.”

And Mike: “Maybe they weren’t oppressed enough.”

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At night the full moon keeps the mountains alive and staring at us; the whole train stares back, a slithering beast beneath the weeds watched only by cattle. The moonlight shimmers off the river below like the Milky Way; streams above and rivers below. And the beauty. It never stops. The boundless beauty. Is this how it feels to be in a river? A molecule jetting among the fish and algae? Just moving along, soaked in an endless splendor.

“I’ve run out of room for pictures,” Lucky says, eyes tired but still staring.

“I’ve run out of room,” Mike responds.

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“Are you reading?!” Lucky shouts at Blake, who lies in the middle bunk, his blanket shielding him. “Have you looked outside once?”

“Don’t get me started,” Blake responds from his bunk as he flips to the next page of his novel. “It’s all the same. A waterfall is a faucet, just bigger. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen’em all.”

Filled with the unfocused chi of the beauty outside, Lucky tosses the blanket off of Blake, opens the curtains of the nearest window, and points towards the river far below. “Confront the beauty, Blake! You may never see it again!”

“I’ve seen it all,” Blake says, his voice cracking as he turns to face the white wall.  “Where have you traveled, Lucky? Thailand? You travel just to find women who love your accent. Don’t tell me what to do. The only reason we’re traveling together is because Kawika is here to translate. We don’t even know how to ask a Chinese person the time! So go do what you do, let me do what I do.”

The train chugs along, pulling us. The silent black-clothed woman on the top bunk shifts around, half-asleep.

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“I don’t care!” Lucky screeches. “You must see this!” He lifts Blake out of the bunk with a superhuman strength. “You going to sue me?” Lucky says, pushing him out of the cabin. “You going to hit me, or are you going to look at this—look at this!”

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Forced to sit near the window, Blake pushes his glasses in, wheezes, and looks at the scenery. I can’t help but watch as a flood slowly fills him, then infuses him with a bold energy, but keeps him paralyzed at the same time. I see it then: the sinking, the gasping, the drowning. The loneliness of the stark moonlight and the terror of the mountain and the crusading river. Thinking: there’s just too much there’s just too much there’s just too much.

And went into a tunnel.

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Lijiang

Streets of Lijiang's old city.

Streets of Lijiang’s old city.

It’s $12 each for a six hour private minivan from Erhai Lake to Lijiang. Our Chinese friends, Calvin, Nancy, James and William, spend the entire ride complaining about the price.

“We got screwed,” Calvin says, shaking his head, toothpick in hand, sunglasses tight.

Lucky, the French man whose body is shaped like a chopstick, coughs and hocks a lugi.

“Plus,” Blake says, feet propped on the driver’s arm chair. “Thanks to Lucky, you’re all sick now.”

We walk around the rainy old city where Lucky the French wanderer, Mike the Greek ecotourist, and Blake the pedantic Aussie, put their brains together to invent new words for the streets: “sliptastic streets, slippage ridden streets, slipgastic streets.” The streets, made of smooth squarish rocks, are very slippery. And since Lucky has shared his cold with the rest of us, we stumble through Lijiang’s ancient city like old men, taking small steps so as not to slip, heads bent over in stupidly nauseous gasps.

Streets follow the streams.

Streets follow the streams.

“I know who got me sick,” Lucky says, holding onto a stand selling keychains to keep from slipping. “Some little Chinese bitch on the bus in Dali. Eight years old, maybe. Cough cough. Mother does not stop, not care. Cough cough. Disgusting Dali minorities. Not know shit about germs.”

The Lijiang Square (Sifang)

The Lijiang Square (Sifang)

We all buy some hardcore Chinese herbal medicine, take twice the dosage, since we’re large Westerners. Hours later we’re hyper-actively chatting around a Chinese bar, then singing along to a hard-rock band playing American songs: “The answer! My friend! It’s blowin’ in the wind! WIND!”

Our new Chinese friends don’t say anything. It’s not that kind of bar, apparently.

An unshirted hippie interrupts our silence, leans over the table, his long blonde hair nearly dipping into our cold Snow beers. “Hey, any of you guys want to phone home?” he yells over the singer’s voice, flapping a phone card between his fingers like an Ace of Spades. “I got extra time on this card, and—well, my girlfriend just dumped me, so no need for it anymore.” We remain silent. “Come on, none of you guys have anyone back at home you wanna call?”

We remain silent.

Hot pot

Hot pot

We enter the hostel coughing absurdly, though it seems all the Chinese tourists are doing the same. It turns out that they’re not sick, it’s just that the cook is making Sichuan food so spicy that even the feral cats sneeze and sob from beneath the floorboards. At night we struggle to sleep in our bunk-beds, our sicknesses quarantined from other travelers with towels and sheets hanging from the bunks above us. We take more meds. In the morning, Mike, Blake and Lucky weakly push me out to go order train tickets from the non-English speaking hostel staff. Our new Chinese friends, an assured distance from me, wave goodbye.

Our hostel had a communist theme.

Our hostel had a communist theme.

With Mike and Blake also sick, I head out to explore the city with Lucky, who was the first of us to get sick and is thus more energetic now. We walk around Pearl Lake where Lucky falls twice, the first time landing on a luckily-placed chair, the second time on his hands, which go “CRAK” but nothing seems broken.

“God damn Chinese streets,” Lucky says weakly, dribble spilling from his mouth.

Stone sculpture at Black Dragon Pool (Heilongtan) park

Stone sculpture at Black Dragon Pool (Heilongtan) park

We sit at a buffet-style diner to eat eggplants stuffed with pork and spices; we meet Linda, a Chinese American New Yorker, along with her two twenty-something mixed race cousins from Britain.

“Good thing you two brought cash,” Linda says with the haste of a day-trip tourist. “In Vietnam I forgot to bring cash, no ATMs, so I had to prostitute myself.”

The two cousins stare at her in disbelief. Apparently, Linda has elevation sickness, which is common with Lijiang’s 2,400 m (7,900 ft) elevation. And this is what can happen with elevation sickness.

“Do you think man like me can also do this prostitute thing?” Lucky asks, the first time I’ve seen him serious.

“Sure!” Her hands go up, then fold back onto her screaming headache. “Happens all the time. Plenty of gay bars in Vietnam, China too. For sure.”

“I mean,” Lucky says, “not gay. For women. Men for women.”

Eggplants

Eggplants

Before Linda can go on, I give her some aspirin and a Zyrtec to help with the elevation. She consumes them rapidly, begins to calm halfway through consuming her “over-the-bridge” noodles, and then rants about how much she loves China, but hates Chinese people, because they pretend not to understand her Mandarin. She tells me in Chinese that her female cousin wants to teach English overseas, and enlists me to convince her.

“What happening?” Lucky finally asks.

“She wants me to tell her cousin to teach English overseas.”

Lucky gives Linda’s cousin that look: that flaneur gaze that Baudelaire captured in his “A une passante:”

From her eye, livid sky where the hurricane is born,

The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,

Lucky’s gaze reads her – the neck of her red sweater twisting around her shoulder like a taut vine. “My dear,” Lucky says. “Your name?”

Linda and I watch nervously as the troubadour plunges into his role as the romantic French-accented traveler, telling Linda’s budding cousin about the beauty of the East. The cousin seems entranced – her eyes turn grey from below her wavy bangs. Lucky takes her hand, rubs it, whispers into her ear. Meanwhile, Linda passes out from the Zyrtec.

“I give myself to you,” Lucky says.

“Oh,” the girl looks away, back to the other world of Mandarin and cut-up eggplant. Then back to him: his green eyes, the accent, the stubbled George-Clooneyish facial hair. She smiles, “but I don’t know how long I can stay.”

Lucky lurches back, coughs hard into his arm, and hocks a lugi onto the ground.

Suddenly alive, Linda bursts into laughter. “Dude,” she says. “You’d make a really shitty prostitute.”

The square near Dongba Palace

The square near Dongba Palace

The four of us, Mike, Blake, Lucky and I, check out from the hostel with our clothes still wet from rain, and leave our molded baggage to walk south of the old city and climb up the “Wu” pagoda place.

Wu Pagoda

Wu Pagoda

“This is where the great river begins,” Lucky says, his voice scratched by his itchy throat. “The source of the river we’ve been following.”

We pace up the five-storied pagoda, every step cracking the wood beneath us, until we reach the top, and watch the modern city to the west. Streams of trains and cars and buses feed into highrises like water to a spring. Then to our east, the ancient city, towered with two-story triangle-shaped buildings, a reef of swimming tourists haphazardly drifting into trees and slipping on flat-rocked streets.

View to the west

View to the west

View to the east

View to the east

Lucky finally stops coughing and hocking. He watches the ancient rooftops like a man resigned. “This is as high as I’ll ever go,” he says. “This is as wondrous as it gets. Maybe, I will meet eternity before I see another.”

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Dali

Dali market

Dali market

Mike the pudgy Greek passes around spring bottled water in the Kunming train station where we wait to leave for Dali, one of the old cities of the Bai ethnic minority (Bai[白] meaning white). At the station restaurant we encounter an American from California who has been living in Kunming for six months, looking for “a way to get rich” while learning some Chinese (very little from what I can see). While he pines that his girlfriend moved back to the states a week ago, he gulps small liquor bottles of Bai jiu, the get-drunk-off-your-ass-in-20-seconds-flat rice wine.

“So why are you really here?” Mike asks the American. The same question we’ve been unable to answer.

“Dude, I have a really nice apartment,” the American says, Bai Jiu still swishing in his mouth. “It’s $700 for six months in my apartment. And it’s a nice apartment.”

Mike shakes his head. “And you think you’re winning something, don’t you? Six months is a long time to be drunk—you could go anywhere! For example…”

And then Mike, like a good Greek eco-tourist, tells a story. In Indonesia, Mike was too cheap to take the $30 “black listed” six-seat airplanes from island to island, and instead took a small sailboat with blue sails that put twenty people at the mercy of tropical storms, and was so full that Mike had no room to sit down. About three hours in, half-way to the other island, his boat began to sink. The only person on board with a mobile phone, Mike calls the emergency line—the Indonesian version of 911, but nobody picks up. As the ocean water starts gushing into the boat, he sends a text message with the coordinates from his GPS. Minutes later, the boat sinks, the cellphone breaks, and fat Mike is floating in the water with the Indonesians, some of whom have life jackets, while others hold on to their friends who have them. Five hours pass. They all come to grips with the idea that they are all going to die. The sun sets. In his delirium, Mike believes he hears a helicopter, but nothing happens. Another two hours pass and it starts to rain. He cannot see those in front of him, does not know if anyone has died. He cannot speak to anyone because no one speaks English. Then, out of the thick darkness and rain, comes a light. A boat. Someone had received his text message, and had sent a helicopter to verify where they were. They were saved.

Then Mike pulls an Indonesian paper from his large green backpack. There’s his large body dwarfing the raisin-skinned old folks next to him. In the the week I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him smile as wide.

“Shit,” I burst, my eyes searching the train station. “As you were telling that story, someone stole my phone!”

Dali's ancient city 古城

Dali’s ancient city 古城

At the hostel, four young Chinese from Beijing and Shanghai take us to eat horse meat and camel.

“These guys must have amazing travel karma,” Mike says while piercing open the plastic around his dinnerware with a chopstick. “When have I ever taken some random Asian tourists to dinner with me? Never. That never happens.”

We lean back as our new Chinese friends start pouring an entire pot of tea over every utensil, bowl, cup and plate at the table. “To sterilize,” William the Beijinger says. He seems the eldest of their group, but also the poorest, with a white polo and old faded jeans. The tea dribbles from our plates and flows in a stream off the plastic table mat and between our crotches.

“So goddamn clean,” Lucky says. “Even when it is wrapped in plastic, they still clean with tea.” He pauses, giving me that you’re-the-one-who-speaks-Chinese glare.

“They are health fanatics,” I say.

“These men share our bunk, yes?” Lucky responds, scratching his beard. “I don’t know how to tell them I feel a cold coming on.”

Mike snarls, “I don’t know how to tell them that I have AIDs.”

New Friends, restaurant in Kunming

New Friends, restaurant in Kunming

We notice that the two Chinese women in their group, Amy and Nancy, do all the pouring of tea, while only the men discuss where to go and what to eat.

“Goddamn,” Lucky says, chewing horse in his mouth like jerky. “So normal here, is it?” Looking at me.

“I don’t know,” I respond, “I’m a flaneur. Flaneurs empathize and understand, not cast labels. Besides, none of us were invited to choose the food.”

“Bollocks,” Blake responds. “Some people know how to treat women, some don’t.”

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Even though the plates have been cleaned and sterilized, our new friends never use them except to discard shrimp shells and duck bones. The food goes in the rice bowl.

Mike starts gripping the table, chewing the horse meat with his eyes closed. “I hate China so much,” he wails, tear jerking from his face. “This food never helps me lose weight.”

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William, the Chinese tourist who can speak a smattering of English, asks what Westerners think of Chinese. “Before Olympics,” he says, “European people thought China was still in Qing Dynasty.” We expect him to laugh. He doesn’t. “What do Americans think of China?”

Flashes of Time Magazine covers announcing China as “red” and “unfree” flash before my mind.  “Many think you are not free,” I say.

I translate for the others, and our Chinese friends laugh so hard, we foreigners are left in a nervous giggle until they calm down.

“They serious?!” sputters Nancy, the other quasi-English speaker in the group.

“Americans so stupid,” Lucky says.

Then William replies, “Anyways that is true. We are not free.”

South Gate

South Gate

When the rice runs out and the tea is refilled, Mike tells another story. He was riding a motorbike in Sri Lanka when a drunk local hit him and sent him spiraling into a banyan tree. No worries, he wasn’t injured, but the local man sued him for the slight car damage, and since Mike had no Sri Lankan driver’s license, he had to spend two weeks in Sri Lankan prison waiting for the trial. Stuck in a cell with three other men who spent their time squatting, staring out the bars at the patches of desert and dirt outside, and eating lentil soup and curry out of their hands. When he finally went to trial, his lawyer told him to admit he was guilty, even though Mike wouldn’t understand the accusation or the punishment. He was found guilty. The charge? $50 U.S.

A moment of silence lulls.

“Hey,” I add. “Did I mention I got my cellphone stolen at the train station?”

Smash!

Smash!

Our new Chinese friends spirit us away – to Qingshan(青山), a city on the Northwest shore of Erhai lake, “Erhai” meaning “ear shaped.” We walk around trying to avoid hordes of gigantic spiders staring at us with their militant eight-eyes. We take a long bicycle ride, and see not one sign in pinyin or English.

Taking pictures at Erhai

Taking pictures at Erhai

After churning our bicycle struts up a large hill, we make it to an old Daoist temple, where William disappears inside the small shrines.

“Nothing special,” one of the Chinese men, Calvin, says. He’s the hunkiest of the bunch, muscular with dark skin and permanent sunglasses. “Go to Beijing, see any temples, you are done with temples forever.”

We flaneurs observe with our hands held behind our backs, perhaps, biting our tongues from pointing out the absurd “Oh-faces” on each of the red angry gods.

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We step on creaking wooden floorboards and peek inside a shrine, where William’s legs peek through in the sunlight like two fat logs.

Calvin laughs. “William, he prays for a son.”

“Does he have a wife?” Mike asks, yawning.

“No wife,” Calvin says. “No girlfriend. Chinese girls don’t like him. Too short. Too few women now.”

“Girls like strong guys like you?” Mike asks.

“No,” Calvin shakes his head, fiddling with a toothpick in his mouth. “Like skinny, tall, white skin.”

“All over the world,” Mike says as he steps over the wooden banister into the temple, and kneels next to Calvin to pray.

“What he pray for?” Calvin asks. “A baby boy?”

“He’s gay,” Lucky says, “so no.”

“We don’t know him that well,” I say.

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