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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
“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.
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.”