An Unusual Day

 

My sojourn in one of the coldest rooms in central China was cut short by an early waking.  I looked at my watch – 5.30am. Argh – ok – I might as well just get on the road. 

 

As you must have gathered by now, this doesn’t mean I will be on the road at 6am.  Rather more like 7.30am.  I have my routines which go roughly – praying, reading, stretching, washing, dressing, packing (unpacking because I’ve forgotten something), re-packing, carrying (downstairs), assemblage of luggage on bike, check out, final stretch and away we go.  Sometimes breakfast is thrown in there but not every time and not this time. 

 

But I was peddling away from “the hotel on the hill” before 8am, and making reasonable time through the mist along a winding road, hopping from village to village.  Overtaking the bus on its school run, or little motorised scooters with crackling old speakers declaring their wares on loop: “I’ve got beef, I’ve got pork, I’ve got lamb…..I’ve got beef, I’ve got pork, I’ve got lamb….”, and on it went. 

 

The road went ever upward but I knew that the ride for the day was a kind of double-dip.  Up a lot, then down very steeply for a while, then potentially the climb of the journey so far over into Chongqing province, and then down sharply into the first town on the other side called Xinglong.

 

The top of the first climb took me rather by surprise – and a pleasant one at that.  It was still a misty and cold morning and the valley between the two ridges was filled with mist.  But across this white sea, the black peaks of the wall of rock into Chongqing rose like a mighty barrier, wreathed by swirls of mist that the wind had caught up from the valley and hung about their shoulders.  The view immediately evoked Tolkein’s Misty Mountains to me, and a gasp of relish and respect left my lips.  “I’ve got to get over that!” I thought.  “Bring it on!”

 

I had been stretching my tendon regularly up the first climb and it was feeling good.  I got down the descent into the valley pretty quickly, but already I was cold so I had a quick pit-stop – a change of clothes and a bowl of noodles, spiced up with as much laqiao (chilli) source as I could take.  It was just before 10am, but that didn’t stop a handful of locals, who were sitting round one of these stove/tables watching the Asian Games in Guangzhou, from offering me a little tipple of baijiu.  “Over my dead body,” I said with an ingratiating smile. 

 

As I was leaving, one of them came outside for a smoke and I asked him how far to the summit.  “15km up, 15km down to Xinglong,” he said.  “OK – that’s manageable.”

 

So I set off.  The road immediately started climbing but was following one of the more attractive mountain streams I have had the good fortune to pass.  By this time too, the sun had more or less burnt off all the early morning mist so, quite quickly, the ride up the mountain became rather hot and I stripped down to fairly minimal kit.  It was a steep climb so the road switch backed left and right on the left hand shoulder of the valley, while the right hand shoulder propped up a massive and sheer face of grey rock that went straight up for hundreds of feet. 

 

My leg felt good and this thought kept coming back and back into my mind: “You’re so kind, you’re so kind to me.”  (I was basically praying.)  It was another of these moments of revelation of assurance.  And I didn’t just mean this moment.  As the sweat began to pour off me, I was continually amazed that here I was doing this fairly brutal climb in the barmiest of weather, with my foot holding together and I couldn’t think back to a day when the weather had been very tough to endure.  But beyond that, I just had a glimpse of my whole life, of the pain and joy, of what I have had to let go, of what I have received, and I just got an inkling that behind all this there is the kindness of God.  Somehow the pain we are allowed to endure may yet be a kindness.  (Anyway, I won’t dwell on it.  To bring the pain of the world and the existence of God into a conversation is to plunge into the most unfathomable of mysteries.  But this is what I was thinking about as I toiled away.)

 

Meanwhile, I was passing the Hubei horticulturalist club which seemed to have taken up residence all the way up this valley.  Everyone was out, from grandlings to grandma, hoeing a little furrow here, watering a line of vegetables there, pruning away the weeds in one field, piling up harvested stalks for burning in another.  It occurred to me how most of the agrarian existence I had witnessed through my days on the road was completely un-mechanised.  Each and every individual plant is sown by hand, tended by hand, harvested by hand, treated by hand.  Amazing when you consider the strength of this nation’s economy and the economic challenge it represents to every other nation, and yet how primitively most of its population subsist for their daily food. 

 

I think my favourite pastoral image – maybe of the whole trip – was passing a handsome and weathered old man with a kind of half-turban wrapped round his head (as you sometimes see) carefully and conscientiously weaving a large wicker-basket.  He had a pile of baskets he’d made on his left, and the materials for making new ones on his right.  He could have been sat there 1,000 years ago and nothing would have changed about this scene.  He was totally of the land – of that place.  And what of his view?  This oddity flashing across his vision in a bright red top and strange bulbous white hat, interrupting the satisfying sight of the awesome face of rock that dominates the valley.  I hope it gave him no more care or thought than a fly that might brush his face and be gone with a swipe of the hand.

 

Enjoying these pastoral views as I worked my way higher and higher and watching the distance metre eat up the mileage, eventually I was within 5km of what I had been told was the top when I came to a tunnel.  This is usually a cause for celebration as tunnels mean the top as a rule.  Unfortunately, this one didn’t because the road that way was barred.

 

Instead, a man working nearby showed the road that continued up the mountain.  “Another 10km to the top!” he shouted.  I groaned inside.  OK, 10km not 5km.  I wonder who’s right.  Making matters considerably worse, the road went from well-maintained tarmac to a rocky, muddy path.  My speed was reduced to less than 5kph.  A road this rugged is bad enough on any bicycle but with all my gear, it made the going very tough.

 

The first kilometre was fine.  And the second.  By the third I was feeling a little bobbled and battered.  By the fourth, my sense of humour was beginning to take a nose dive.  During this particular kilometre, I passed a homestead where two women and a man were working on the little plot of land in front of the house.  “Only another 8km to the top” he calls.  8!!  This distance keeps growing and growing. 

 

About two kilometres further on, I acknowledged that this road was indeed to be one of the physical tests of this journey, and I adjusted my mind-set to try to meet this test.  It was somewhere around then that I decided I needed to do a great deal of cursing.  It just felt like the right moment for it.  So picking an individual who I felt it was theologically sound to give a good cursing, I was soon damning the devil’s eyes and everything about him – slandering his name and telling him what a laughable loser he was – that whatever he tried to do, his end was assured etc., etc.  Whether it is strictly advisable to engage in this kind of name-calling, I didn’t really pause to think, but it made me feel a bit better, and it passed the time up this beast of a climb.

 

Finally, mercifully, the path emerged from the treeline and quite quickly flattened out as it rolled over the top of the pass into Chongqing.  I was elated – in an utterly exhausted kind of a way.  Just at this point, up pops the man from the homestead again in his truck and we have a short conversation.  He points down the valley to a collection of buildings – that’s Xinglong, he said.  “Know any hotels there?” I asked cursorily.  “Why yes! Here you go!” And he fishes around in his glove compartment and produces a packet of tissues with the name and address of a hotel on the front.  The Jun de Hotel.  Fine.  Excellent – my roof for the night.

 

Although all the climbing was over, the descent required a great deal of concentration because it was more of the same surface – terrible rocks and bumps and puddles and loose dirt and gravel.  My entire skeleton had been shaken to its limit when eventually I passed a collection of road workers digging away beside the road, and onto a proper surface again.  Ahhhhh!  Sweet delight (we live for these little highs!)

 

Within minutes, I was in the familiar territory of rolling around town asking where this particular hotel was.  With a bit of time, I zeroed in on it.  It wasn’t much to write home about.  The room was freezing cold – though the water was boiling and the bathroom had those lights that are super-charged heaters too.  So I stood in there for a while before descending to the town.

 

I hadn’t thought much of it as I arrived, but the lobby was (once again) disproportionately filled with several women from mid-twenties to middle-age, with a couple of baby cowboys strutting around in tow around their feet, comme d’habitude.  There was nervous tittering (or perhaps better described as knowing laughter) at me, which I have more or less become accommodated to by now.  But more on that later.

 

I was understandably tired but felt a little walk was necessary, and some food.  As I walked up the street I passed a turn-off into a large public square.  I took a quick look at what was going on.  It was just before dusk and there were basketball courts, table tennis tables and playground – er – things on the left side of the square.  All were being used enthusiastically and noisily by children. 

 

I carried on and found a likely-looking place which did indeed serve me an interesting variation on the meals I had had previously.  It seemed to be the local speciality to have a big wok placed in the middle of a specially-designed table, with a flame underneath – rather like your own personal cauldron (if dining yi ge ren (single) as I often have).  Into this cauldron one drops a variety of foods that they have produced and placed on one side of the table.  This could be anything from lettuce to pork to tofu.  And then you get your rice on the side.  It seemed fairly haphazard but did an admirable job of filling me up.  The manager’s little daughter was a girl of about 11 years old.  She was manning the cash desk and also the alcohol rack.  It was her duty to serve me the two beers I ordered (which are bottles a little bigger than Europeans are used to).  I found the extreme concentration with which she opened the bottle at my table, and then diligently poured out the first plastic cupful of the stuff rather endearing. 

 

There were other kids chasing around the other tables, and coming up to me in a curious sort of a way.  They are good ice-breakers, and I was two cigarettes to the good after brief chats with their fathers as I left the restaurant.  (I didn’t smoke them though.  I don’t know why I took them.  It’s the only time I’ve accepted cigarettes, I suppose as some sort of unconscious face-saving response.  Silly really….)

 

As I walked back towards my hotel, there seemed to be a groundswell of people moving along the street in the direction of the square.  It was still early so I thought I’d go and see what was happening.  As I came onto the square I saw a large crowd of people in the top right hand quarter of the open space and rhythmical music was filling the air. 

 

In my opinion, this is one of the most attractive and characteristic pastimes of the Chinese - their open air dancing in public spaces.  One might ask what possible better use could a town square be put to?  It is so enjoyable to watch this going on, partly because the music is engaging, but also so many of the dancers are naturally elegant and graceful.  There were rather more mixed couples this time than I had seen in Mengshan, but the best couples I spotted were still made up of two women. 

 

I felt a little self-conscious pulling out my camcorder to record some of this scene, particularly as many of the bystanders saw me amongst them and became more interested in me than the dancers.  I stood more than a head taller than anyone I could see, and I could see one child nudge another and gesture at me.  Still I was happy just to watch and take it all in.

 

Eventually one of the older onlookers plucked up the courage to break the ice with me and he asked me how tall I was.  “Yi mi jiu” (1m90) I tell him (more or less).  We enter into the usual repartee about where I am from, where I have come from today etc. and by this time a little crowd is building up around the two of us hanging on my every (badly enunciated) syllable.  Into this rather benign interchange jumps a middle-aged women who wants to know whether I can dance.  Rather recklessly I reply “sure, I can dance”, which was her cue to take me by the hand, and away we went.

 

If you can imagine how a square full of couples enjoying a charming dance with their friend or spouse or lover could, in an instant, stop what they were doing to turn their unwavering gaze on the far from confident steps of the stranger in their midst, you will begin to appreciate the predicament I was in.  The searing burn of 500 pairs of eyes trained on my rather hapless efforts to control this overbearing woman who would insist on trying to lead was a heavy burden to bear.  I confess that I was able to endure not even two minutes of this torture.  The twirling that used to work so well with young girls at 21st birthday parties in the past served me very poorly indeed in my efforts to impress the crowd of townsfolk.

 

I would love to relate that when we finished the crowd broke into unbridled applause but that would not be the truth.  While the grown-ups (rather sniffily I thought) turned up their noses and got back to their dancing, the children took this as their cue to deluge me with clamour, teaming round me in a sea of grinnagog faces.  Within seconds I was being driven on to humiliation number 2. 

 

A basketball was produced from somewhere and one of the bolder kids demanded to know whether I played basketball.  “Sure I can play” again I foolishly admitted.  (I mean who can’t bounce a ball?  That’s all I was claiming really.)  So the sea swelled around me and bore me down onto the basketball court where I was given the set up for a shot of maybe twenty feet.

 

OK – here goes. One attempt – off the hoop.  Two attempts – off the back and too far.  Third attempt – the ball flies low under.  After six attempts I wish the ground would swallow me up.  The more sporty fathers are standing in amongst the kids smiling encouragingly – surely everyone is willing the tall stranger to get one in.  A seventh attempt – off the hoop again! (Argh!)  A child could make this shot, I think to myself. Where’s my mate Skipper when a fella’s in a tight spot?

 

At this point, a child takes the ball out of my hands….and makes the shot.

 

OK – declares one of the dads – how about a slam dunk?  (I gathered this from his gestures.)

 

Ah well, you see I’ve got this gammy tendon, and matron said I really oughtn’t to be exerting it too much. 

 

No excuses accepted.  I was the tallest man in the town – if anyone could do a slam dunk – it must be me.  Well, moving like the semi-cripple I was, I demonstrated the woeful agility for which I am fortunately not known.  Two weak attempts and the ball flew wildly off the hoop in crazy directions. 

 

My humiliation complete, the fathers sauntered off to join their wives and I was left to deflect the barrage of questions being fired at me from the “horror” of children (the collective noun for over-excited children) that continued to paw at my waist.  This gradually dispersed with my efforts to leave the square (amid many smiles and farewells admittedly since I had been a good sport during the tarring and feathering).  I was finally left alone when I slipped into a supermarket and bought an enormous bag of cola bottles sweets which I distributed, one each, to the remaining children who wandered off in different directions to their homes, apparently satisfied.

 

Saying goodbye to the last of them outside my hotel, I opened the door into the lobby.  There, seated around a tiny table which stood over an electric heater and disinterestedly watching a movie on the TV, was the manager, his wife and three young women.  The young women were just a fraction too made-up to be there to pass the time with their good friends, Mr and Mrs Heng.  In fact one of them had approached me earlier in the day and asked whether I cared to eat with her (in a lip-pouting sort of a way).  It had not been difficult to forego this suggestive delight and venture out to dine alone.

 

But as I crossed the lobby I bade them a friendly goodnight and was up in my room before any proposals were made.  However, the night was not yet done.  A knock at the door.  It was the manager saying there had been some problem with my visa, and could I bring it back down to the lobby.  I obliged him and stood leaning against the counter waiting for his computer to unfreeze as he tried to re-enter my details. 

 

This was the girls’ cue to pull up an empty chair next to them and ask me to join.  Well, I didn’t want to be objectionable, so I took a seat.  It took all of thirty seconds for them to come to the point which was, as a single traveller I couldn’t possibly want to go to that big cold room all alone so which of these three lovelies was it to be? (said the wife, or words to that effect).

 

Oh no, I really don’t go in for that sort of thing, I excused myself.  No, I am very happy to get some sleep.  Long day ‘n all, wo hen lei (I’m very tired).  

The manager joins us at the table just then and leers at me and gives me a friendly shove.  I try to change the subject and ask him whether he has any kids.  Somehow, with his gesturing, I momentarily understood him to be saying that these were his daughters and which one did I want.  Wondering whether things could sink any lower, I thought I’d best double-check (without expressing my shock too obviously) but thankfully he laughed and said No, he only had one son.  I was confused anyway. 

 

Then in chimes the girl immediately on my left.  She is asking something about England and “xiaojie”.  Eventually I understand that she is asking whether there are many Chinese “misses” in England.  “You know, I really haven’t a clue.  I’ll have to get back to you about that.” I did hazard a guess that there may be rather more Russian “misses” in England than Chinese ones – being that much closer you see. 

 

Slightly bewildered at the direction this conversation had taken, I figured it was best brought to an end, so I stood up, bid them an even firmer goodnight this time and scurried (passport in hand) back upstairs.

 

As I was just pulling off my shoes, there was a final knock.  Oh my goodness – do these people ever give up?…..Yes, can I help you? 

 

It was the manager’s wife this time.  “You know, you really don’t have to sleep alone tonight,” she said in an understanding, motherly sort of a way, gesturing at my big empty bed.  “You’re travelling alone, you really need some company.” (or some such words)

 

“No really I’m fine.  Thank you!”

 

“It’s ok, it’s ok – you don’t have to be alone,” she repeats.

 

“I understand.  Buyao.  No thank you!”

 

“OK then.  Suit yourself…But don’t say we never offered,” as the door closed behind her.

 

I would certainly never…ever say that.


Comments (2)

Roups
Said this on 12-1-2010 At 08:07 pm

Theo you old furit well done so far - am loving the updates from the relative comfort of the brick cell that is the office. As you know its all about saving face and filming as much as possible with your camcorder. John'O and I tried some basketball in Beijing and were equally humbled!

I hope the tendon is on the mend - be careful will all the xiaojie's! Ni bu yao iger junguo nu pungyuo... or maybe you do ;-)

Keep safe and peddle hard,

Roups

Noemi
Said this on 10-3-2011 At 12:05 pm

<><Beautifully engaging and utterly humorous ! God is most definitely beyond kind and far from putting in simple language! He is sooo kind to keep you steady on your path. And I am sooo happy you did not smoke those cigaretes...they might have made you smell bad <><

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