Me and my Shadow(s)

by Ant Stone on August 4, 2007

in China

As I stuffed boxer shorts and guidebooks into my spotted handkerchief, I became consumed by the romance of floating through countries chatting with locals about their culture and perhaps exchanging ideas over a pot of peculiar tasting tea. In reality however, my ignorant approach to learning their language and omitting to carry even the simplest of phrasebook has left me in some unfamiliar, and at times frustrating territory. On reflection, my previous jaunts within our sphere have been to places that share at the very least a common alphabet. I can imagine your nonchalance towards my daily predicament, seeing a sign that says “最后外国人走在这里结束下在面条” is easy to translate, right? In reality that sign means “The last foreigner to walk down here ended up in the noodles”. Could you tell the difference between dog (狗) or chicken (鸡) on a menu, when they’re hidden with “Where’s Wally” expertise among the pepper (胡椒), rice (米) and other Chinese delicacies (威胁肚腑). This is my way of admitting, China is a hard hard country to “float through”, let alone order a pot of tea.

Regardless, I’m pushing on into the depths of this minefield (or more aptly, mimefield). My final day in Datong saw me seek out a duo of Buddhist thrills; the Hanging Monastery and Yungang Caves. The former, a Buddhist monastery wedged onto the side of Heng Shan, close to Hunyuan, the access road shared with stubborn gridlock-addicted lorries from a nearby quarry. The monastery nonetheless impressive, it was easy to transport your mind back to the days when monks would roam around achieving their daily tasks, while flicking cockroaches to their death from the upper balconies (or not, I hasten to add). These days the monks are gone, and the only thing to be followed are the flags leading plagues of tour groups up the narrow steps. The Yungang Caves (AD 460) – equally as overrun – contain some of the earliest Buddhist carvings in China. The real draw for me however, were the giant carved Buddhas housed in some of the latter caves. This double whammy has left me Buddha’d out for now, the B-Man makes an appearance in every fissure possible, and as an atheist I take little from the main focal points. These temples are fantastic places, steep in history and covered in culture but I just feel like telling them to get out the Mr Sheen and dry clean all the musty rags hanging from the rotting ceilings. Forgive me father, for I have no doubt sinned- feed me to the 狗’s. For a religion hell bent on ‘new life’, they seem to covet old things a little too much for my liking, but I respect their views.

I left Datong showered and satisfied, it had been a good come down from the turbulence of Beijing, but I still wasn’t ready to embrace another large city. Instead I proceeded to Pingyao, a humble offering of just 40,000 people and “possibly the best-preserved ancient walled city in China” according to Lord Lonely Planet. Not having seen the others, I couldn’t argue. Upon my arrival I approached a young lady holding a hostel board and within moments, Kang Jing (or Candy to us Westerners) had become a fellow passenger aboard a motorbike taxi as we lay skid marks on the antiquated cobbles of Pingyao’s streets; the blur of red lanterns taking me back to the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644) and Pingyao’s glory days, it’s still largely unchanged. Eventually I staggered into the Yamen Youth Hostel- the former Ming residence of the governor, and as majestic as it sounds. As I laid my head to rest, I sneezed the dusts of history into the streets outside while my eyes closed to the not-so ancient sound of Take That’s ‘Relight my Fire’. The song was appropriate for my modern day arrival, I’d arrived in Pingyao to start afresh and recoup my scattered soul. Walking the ancient streets, I eluded swarms of tour groups- pointlessly aided by crackling megaphones- while ducking and diving my way past trinket sellers and ad hoc tour guides alike. I wouldn’t say they put the ‘wow’ in Pingyao, but the city served it’s purpose. It was in the evening after a welcome rainfall, when the tourists had dispersed and all that could be seen were the reflections of history on the cobbles that Pingyao was welcomed into my psyche. Soon after, I shared a beer with Tim, a fellow Brit while we acknowledged our historic surroundings.

The diminutive stature of Pingyao also helped to magnify the intimidating habits of the Chinese people; almost every time I sat to eat, a small audience would gather. My chopsticks continually yearning to pierce the leg of these ‘innocent’ bystanders, with only the lure of sweet and sour chicken to persuaded them otherwise. The award for the ‘Most Entertaining Welcome for a Newcomer’ in Pingyao went to a jubilant man in his 60′s; as I wandered lackadaisically past him and his gang of Chinese chess players, my thumbs tucked neatly into the straps of my day pack while my imagination chased scantily-clad concubines he rose silently to mimic my stride with exaggerated energy. The giveaway to his comedy arrived in burst of rapturous laughter, I turned to see him reveling in his parody and could do nothing but applaud, tucking my thumbs back in before striding jubilantly on. It’s moments like these that allow me to tolerate China over a prolonged period. If I order food, I am graced by at least 4 waitresses hampering to see my request. If I order a train ticket, the queue – or Chinese equivalent of – floods tightly around me to see my intentions. If I open my bag, I will be blessed with a host of onlookers to aid me. If I’m eating, my clumsy chopstick technique will be vocally scrutinised. If I stop for a rest I’ll become the main Kodak moment. If I begin to write something, I’ll attract a china-man on my shoulder. In moderation, it’s flattering, but this is every moment of every day. While writing an email in Datong, the staff learned that if they turned the power off on my computer they would receive an animated reaction, by the fourth time they were close to losing one of their prized PC’s, and a window.

Naturally I have developed a defense, and subsequently enjoyed conversations with Chinese people about such highbrow topics as my friend Jeff’s decision to repel alcohol for a short period, one Chinese man even helped me pick my fantasy football team while another agreed that I was silly to have fallen from my skateboard as a youth while being towed by a car. I find stall sellers amazingly insightful, and those that choose to stand and stare as I eat are often quizzed about their sexual habits. The lack of common language between us is meaningless, I can see in their eyes that we have a mutual understanding. No doubt I have offered similar advice, to both independents and groups alike and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’ve also decided that upon my return to England, I will return the habit to the Chinese tourists with equal effort and maybe then, and only then will I see the benefit from standing, gawking at a simple human being rummaging through his bag for a stun gun. I may at some point during this post, have broken down into a feverish wreck of a man and for that I apologise, I must of eaten something dodgy, like 山羊脐带.

I left Pingyao around 5 days ago, destination Xi’an (pronounced shee’an) where I write from now. I’ll honour this city with a dedicated post in the coming days, it’s the home to the famous army of Terracotta Warriors among other natural and ancient treasures. But for me, the main excitement is being able to see the sunshine and blue sky, a real rarity in my current experience of China due to the pollution; I dare not leave for fear of losing my shadow again, although seemingly I have an abundance of Chinese people willing to replace it.

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Site news; the RSS Feed is fixed so feel free to resubscribe and apologies for the inconvenience. If you don’t know what an RSS Feed is – or can’t spell it – then don’t worry, it’s not important! Also, I won’t be able to post any photos to my Flickr account and subsequently TrailofAnts.com until I reach Nepal (prob in about 4-6 weeks). The Chinese have a knack for blocking sites that contravene their view of the world, and it seems someone uploaded photos of the Tienanmen Square incident in too much detail. I know nothing. Honest.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Colin Grigson August 7, 2007 at 6:42 pm

Your tales have me brimming with moistness, I’m ready to fire if you get up this graphic account of your travels! Love you so much my big toed travelling friend!! xx

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