The Blind Leading the Blind

by Ant Stone on August 30, 2007

in China

Reminiscent of time attempting to tick away on the novelty ‘Mao watch? Mao watch?‘ persistently being hawked in Tiananmen Square; time stood still this week. Any attempt to capture the period in a post, would be inaccurate and, akin to Mao’s arm weakly attempting to wave time away, I’d fail to do my subject justice. Subsequently this post becomes a smoking hot, and completely metaphorical wok, in which I’ll rustle up a table full of south China’s finest backpacker delicacies derived from a colourful selection of event-fuelled ingredients, descended from the iconic bookshelf to the left of the open shop front. Imagine it as just one day, you’ll join me in the evening at the cafe to catch up over dinner. We’ll gratefully accept the fragrant yellow tinted jasmine tea to our table, before leading the cleaver-clad chef to his rustic shelves; ‘ok boss, we’ll take some of this, that, this and, whatever that is, we’ll take it. Oh, and some rice, just one bowl. And a couple of píjǐus (beer). And don’t get any ideas, clean chopsticks this time’.

Awaking from my slumber, I was aware the previous night was a heavy one. My eyes, denying the invasion of sunlight, were pounding. My breath tasted like a stale version of the vice that dictated the slow, sluggish pace of the forthcoming day and my memory spluttered like a dusty movie reel, as if justifying my bodies decision to remain immobile. Two beers. That’s all it takes me these days. In England, I would knock back at least 7 pints before declaring my love for the barmaid and attempting to talk to the Pakistani taxi driver about the cultural differences between our beloved countries. The fact he’s only 22, lives 5 miles from me and has probably never been to Pakistan is a minor clause in our deliberations. Here in south China, it takes me 2 bottles – I hasten to add, they are pretty big, as far as bottle sizes go – before I’m inhaling bowls full of sunflower seeds and insisting I can speak Chinese. ‘Eee, errr, san, seee, wurrrr’ I slur in my finest American accent- one, two, three, four, five. The company for the previous nights entertainment- in Xinjie, a sleepy village amongst the rice terraces – came from two Englishmen Reb and I had met, Charlie and Tom. We were collectively hounded all evening by the repetitive melodies of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On and we heard Auld Lang Syne so many times, I defy anyone to prove it’s not the year 2027.

The first task for the day, before meeting you – near far wherever you are – was to get my haircut. The last time it had seen a professional’s scissors was in the distant cold of a British February, by now it had grown upwards and outwards to such an extent that I was being encouraged to employ a local farmer to take up residence and keep order within my loose, haphazard curls. It was raining globules, the kind that tells you it will be sticking around for some time so I headed into the most respectable establishment I could find, interupted a card game and enquired whether they would take on the task of cutting an aliens hair. 24 minutes later, without a hint of water, let alone shampoo they ripped 10 yuan (66p) out of my hand, we said our zaijian’s and I slipped into the rainswept streets, swiftly masking my stricken scalp with a cap and adapting it’s clasp to fit my shrunken head size. The weather matched my emotions. I felt violated. I wanted to grab the nearest local and hug them, but instead I wandered back to the hotel to seek sympathy from Reb. Needless to say, this came in an uncontrollable burst of laughter- though she’d promised not to. We completed the ‘before and after’ project with my camera and I retired to the bathroom to snip stray hairs from my crestfallen barnet.

Sometime later, Reb talked me into a walk. Charlie and Tom had told us of a path with stunning views of the rice terraces. They also claimed that among the paddy fields they’d spotted an acre or so of marijuana. With the death penalty imposed upon drug traffickers, I rightfully doubted their claims, though was keen to investigate them. The walk was amazing, in all honesty the region would struggle to offer anything other. The lush staircase of rice terraces dragged us along at a reasonable pace, though my crocs determined I take it steady. After side stepping water buffalo and enjoying a selection of faultless, mist capped visions we made it to a small, malodorous village. Children in the yard huddled round a small boy to tenderly stroke his pet pigeon, he’d tied it’s feet tightly with string to lay claim to it. Over the course of the day I realised that dragonflies and rats also enjoy this fate. The pigeon seemed to get off lightly; the dragonfly was flung around as bait to taunt it’s fellow kind whereas the rat was flung in any direction it’s custodian saw fit: soaring through the air before landing with a thud upon a sodden concrete plinth, it tried in vain to scramble away only to be dragged mercilessly towards it’s runway once again.

We soon arrived in the centre of a second village, and were gestured into a local house/shop by an elderly Hani woman where she encouraged us to purchase something. We had the enviable choice of a live chicken, ice cream, corn on the cob or some blackened bananas. We hesitated before sheepishly opting for ice cream, it seemed to have been there a while, so we prized it’s sticky wrapper from the freezer walls and smiled gratefully. We were soon joined by a couple of inquisitive local boys, they looked 10 years old and both had the look of Oliver about them, cheeky and mischievous- as all boys should be. We bought them ice cream too, we daredn’t suffer alone. They shyly accepted and rummaged excitedly through the frozen chest. Soon after, another boy joined. And another. And another. Even granddad joined the act, though curiously he declined the offer of ice cream, he probably knew something we didn’t. He provided an air of wisdom that the kids respected, and through some kind of ancient sign language, that we invented right there in that barren room, we determined that the smallest, ergo cutest kid in the pack was his grandson. The lads entertained us with their finest piece de resistance; ‘arm-pit trumps’, and ‘one-armed knockers’ while Reb and I tried in vain to uphold a level of decency expected of two twenty-something’s. We laughed our way to the wooden core of our frosted treats, seizing numerous opportunities for photos before gliding back along the puddle-ridden path, playing ‘Daddy or Chips?’ till the options dried up.

Come lunchtime (remember this is a metaphorical day, that lasted a week) we’d packed our bags and decided to head further south, to a region called Xishuangbanna, described by the bible that is the Lonely Planet, “with it’s tropical forests, brilliant Dai cuisine and laid back Southeast Asian feel…”. It’s a stones throw from the mystical borders of Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, though the cultural influence isn’t as strong as you’d expect. The journey, took a while longer than our 24hr predictions. The region has seen a lot of rain in recent weeks, meaning the roads were precarious to say the least. The first obstacle, came in the shape of a sandy coloured boulder presumably descended from the cloud covered mountain tops roaring above us. It now stood selfishly in our way. This event would of gained more space in this post, if it weren’t for the second obstacle, a 75m long patch of sloppy mud, gravel and deceptively deep puddles. To the right stood a steep hillside- what was left of it – snowballing rocks down to the ground; to the left was an equally abrupt slope, diving down the valley to a serpent like river snaking through the foothills. The driver deemed his bus load of people too heavy to cross the rampart, he demanded we walk the gauntlet while he followed, safely by himself, in his creaking bus. Reb and I ran for our lives, dodging plummeting rocks while trying to stay upright in our feeble flip flops. As a mental reminder for you, to the right was a vertical slope denying any attempt at an exit, to the left was a suicidal exit plan if things got too much and now behind us, roared a bus driven by a chain-smoking beast who harbored no sentiment towards our fragile western skeleton.

Some hours later, our heart rate had returned to something resembling normal and we watched as the mountainsides withdrew from sight, and nightfall descended all around us- though, for the purposes of this nimble metaphor, a dark cloud gathered over head. The complimentary Landscape Show was over for today, but still there was drama to come. This time, the whole road had collapsed, there was no way through. We weren’t so much told, as urgently signaled to pick up our backpacks and follow a faint flickering of torchlight into the muggy Chinese jungle. We’d realised earlier that we spoke more Chinese than our fellow passengers’ English (though counting to five and ordering a beer, were pointless in this scenario). Puddles cruelly positioned themselves along our path while invisible monkeys sprayed us with super-soakers from amid the tree tops. We hot-footed it through suggestions of paths, clambered over spontaneous 5ft-high concrete blocks and splashed through numerous puddles, rightfully claiming their status as small lakes. We were clueless towards our impending destination, but it soon took shape. A canvas topped wagon, crammed full of the bus’s previous inhabitants. Mothers. Bags. Babies. Chickens. Pensioners. Peasants. Sacks. Children. Men and women squawked in their native tongue, our backpacks floated off on a wave of human hands while we were ushered in the other direction to deliberate the scene, like VIP’s in the front of the wagon. The sympathy for our fellow passengers doubtless lack of comfort declined when the driver revealed a DVD player, and deafened us with Chinese karaoke. I longed to be crammed in the back with the chickens. I stared out of the window and breathed a sigh of relief; we were safe, for now.

On arrival in Jiangchang, or so we guessed, we helped untwist people from the rear of the truck. The chaos around us momentarily subsided as a Hani woman passed me her most treasured possession; her baby boy. He couldn’t of been 6 months old, but within this pandemonium he provided a natural calming influence. Moments later I surrendered my bundle of affection to Reb, equally enthralled by the experience she followed instruction to place the baby on the mothers back, and we watched as they disappeared peacefully into town. We snapped out of the daze, flipped our backpacks on and followed an insistent woman up the road – again, clueless. She led us to an apartment block, for 30 yuan a night we secured a bed- once again, in it’s singular form. Upon our attempted to leave, tradition dictated we were to be stuck in this tiny place, of little importance, for at least 24 more hours. We made the most of it by heading out on a hike, up a quaint cobbled path into the surrounding mountains. Within an hour Reb and I weren’t talking, I’d insinuated that a rabid dog was chasing us and the resulting fear provided a period of humorous stubborn silence.

We sat – metres apart – on a hillside, with uninhibited views of farmers going about their business among the terraced landscape. All around us, bees the size of dragonflies, butterflies the size of birds and eagles the size of air-born gorillas soared around us. My memories of this small town on the edge of Xishuangbanna will be carried on the impressive wings of these vibrant butterflies, flirting with each other in sun-drenched skies. They displayed their finest silk suits, escorting each other through their hillside paradise. We grabbed an afternoon snack with our clumsy chopsticks, a variety of dumplings sunk into an tin tray containing a self-made concoction of vinegar and soy sauce. Once replete we reconnected our friendship with a smile before boarding the bus for our final leg, to Jinghong. The passengers gradually discarded their Chinese Han appearance, choosing instead to take on the subtle characteristics of their friendly faced Southeast Asian counterparts. If I’d been dropped here blindfolded- by a gorilla-eagle – I would never of guessed I were in China. The landscape, though still featuring the ubiquitous bamboo started to gain banana trees, pineapples, palm trees and tea plants. Though for Reb, these views were intermittently blocked by a fellow passengers decision to lean tightly over her, and vomit without compassion out of her window. His boyish looks did little to wash away her anguish, though I couldn’t help but laugh every time his travel sickness boar fruit.

We arrived in Jinghong in the metaphorical evening of this event filled day. Our bodies shattered. Our backpacks covered in mud. Our spirit tested to the limit. Our friendship strenghtened and our psyche in dire need of TLC. Reb suggested we stay at the Dai Building Inn across town, so for a final time that day we braced our backs for the impending addition of straps-and-buckles and strolled off for the ‘bamboo huts’, representative of the traditional Dai residence that – according to the bible, “people either love or hate”. Needless to say: Reb loves it, I hate it. Though the visit of our first cockroach, in her washbag, tested her affection. I swiftly slung it off the balcony, along with it’s blue-and-white porcelain prison. I wasn’t jumping around, shrieking like a girl at all. Honest. The days so far in Jinghong have been aboard a more relaxing mode of transport, a bicycle complete with basket. There’s no better way to explore Chinese towns and cities. They all have cycle lanes enveloping their inner roads, and the Chinese rarely notice you gliding through alongside them, swerving careless traffic.

Before coming to meet you at the cafe this evening, I took a diversion to get a ‘Blind Massage’. While waiting, I saw my masseur glance at his mobile phone leading me to believe it to be more of a ‘Lazy Eye Massage’. Soon after, the sentence for my suspicion was passed. My head was wedged into a hole at the head of the bed, my feet rested over on the sharp edge at the foot. I was forced to inhale the acidic odour of my flip flops lingering below, I could clearly see them as my eyebrows had been pinned back by the same lumpy orifice. I would of complained, but the nausea caused by the flip flops and my Adam’s Apple was being conveniently crushed into the bed, rendering me speechless. With every application of pressure, my eyes rolled back as I choked and gargled. The pain was intense, it was my first ever massage and an experience I’ll never forget. The last time I’d felt pain like that was when my brother put me through ‘Inititiation Training’, from the age of ten till fourteen he dragged me around the house by my temporal lobes. Midway through the kneading I was ushered onto my back, my eyes opened but my sunken body had retreated, too scared to respond. I felt the sensation wasn’t dissimilar to how I imagine a corpse might feel – should it have any feeling – as the sterile environment I drooled at, bore resemblance to a mortuary. I’m unsure if my limbs are relaxed, or have been simply disconnected. Even so, I’ll meet you at the cafe, as promised, to tell you about my blinding day in the south of China. I think we’ll have the dumplings.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Thoms September 1, 2007 at 1:32 pm

Sounds like a few ‘random’ events there mate…things you’ll never forget though!

Thoms September 1, 2007 at 1:34 pm

Oh yeah, I want to see the before & after pics of your hair mate! Bet you look very amusing haha!

Lesley September 6, 2007 at 12:48 pm

Been on holiday, so it’s took a while to catch up with you. My what an interesting life experience, although with all the foreign immigrants in Peterborough now you didn’t need to leave(just joking). I really enjoy seeing it through your eyes, much better than Bill Bryson.
You always did have a weak stomach, remember being sick all over the geography course work.

Becki September 7, 2007 at 9:00 am

7 pints?! Who are you trying to kid?!

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