Grounded

 

Half a day in Enshi turned into three days, three into five, then six.  Eventually after eight days off the road I was finally able to climb back onto the bike and tentatively continue on my way.

 

The week in Enshi certainly had some highs and lows – but on balance I am glad I was forced to rest for a while.  Although it was my tendon that went, I think my whole body had been getting quite fatigued, and despite eating as much as I was able each day, all the exercise I was getting had made me thin as a rake.  Being so tired, I had started to lose the enjoyment of the whole enterprise, and I had become focused mainly on getting the distance done.  There is of course a time for that.  It is not a bad thing, but it can’t become the only thing.

 

Anyway, I hadn’t accommodated myself to this way of thinking on the first day, but I did begin trying to get my tendon on the mend.  Icing it till I couldn’t feel any part of my ankle anymore, doing my best to bind it up to compress it, resting it by keeping it elevated on my bed.  That sort of thing.

 

However, to compound matters I ate all the food on offer in the room including the Chinese equivalent of a pot noodle.  Unfortunately this must have been sitting there for a while because not long into the night I had food poisoning, which went on all night.  By the morning, I was feeling horrible in every sense.  It took every fibre in my body to motivate myself to walk downstairs, ask for some ice for my foot and walk back up. 

 

The rest of the day I just tried to recover but I needed a lot of sleep.  The following day I still felt horrible but managed to shuffle two doors down to a doctor and try in appalling Mandarin (not being hot on the topic of bad Achilles tendons just yet) to explain the problem and what I wanted, which was for her to bind it up properly and give me some anti-inflammatories.  I was working according to western medical advice I suppose, whereas this lady, using Chinese medicinal knowhow, applied a very loose-fitting bandage with some sort of herbal paste on it.  I wasn’t convinced that this was having the necessary effect, so I supplemented it with my icing sessions, about which I became a little obsessive I have to admit. 

 

By the third day, the food poisoning was over and I managed to wander outside and see what kind of a city I had come to.  The hotel was situated right by the river, and by then Enshi was enjoying a wonderful warm week of bright sunny days.  I walked very gingerly along the river bank under the sunlit trees and tried not to feel frustrated with the evident weakness and swelling that didn’t seem to be improving a great deal in my heel. 

 

However, any frustration was unwarranted.  Instead of cycling, during this time I managed to get quite a lot of writing done, and to send out emails and get in touch with a lot of friends.  This was fantastic.  People’s response to my efforts to relate the experiences of my journey so far have been wonderful to receive and extremely encouraging.  Thank you to all who have been in touch, it is hugely appreciated.  Probably the best part of being in touch with so many friends all at once was hearing everyone’s good news. 

 

I learnt that one of my closest friends, Jeremy Rogers, has got engaged to another great friend Rebecca Newman.  I also heard about several new babies – I’ll see if I can remember them all:

Will and Louie van der Hart – a boy Douglas

Mike and Christy Curry – a girl Cecily

Bill and Katie Rogers – a girl Lara

Graham and Rebecca Smith – a girl Ava (I was a bit behind on hearing about this one)

Claire and Richard Todd – expecting in another 5 months

David and Hilary Cassidy – a boy Robert (I think he’s been around a while too)

All great news to hear so I was delighted on all their behalves, and for everyone who got in touch and had good things to report.  It seems I have to get lost in the middle of Asia to find an excuse to get in touch with my friends. (Apologies for that!)

 

So all this kept my spirits up.  Meanwhile, I was learning to be patient with myself and my body.  I think the staff at the Datang Hotel were similarly learning to be patient.  In my defence, this hotel is heavily over-staffed.  On the ground floor and in another part of the hotel, they run a massage business too.  (Not the seedy kind before anyone gets too excited or upset.)  So there are always two girls on the door who bow to you as you enter.  Then about four more just inside the steps down into the massage foyer.  And usually another five or six behind the bar/cash counter.  Every morning at 11 o’clock sharp the entire staff team would meet in the lower foyer and perform some kind of calisthenics (in their normal staff uniforms) to exactly the same music each day.  It was quite entrancing to watch, though often I was in my room at the time this went on, but the music would carry all the way up there – the soulful melody would go round and round my head for the rest of the day. 

 

Because there were so many staff, I would become extremely self-conscious as I emerged from the first floor, gingerly angled my way down the stairs (and all eyes would look up to meet me), and then through the entrance foyer down to the counter and ask (for the seventeenth time) for “Yidian bing, xie xie” (a little ice, please).  It didn’t help that in this particular area of China (and by this area I mean, the Datang Hotel) apparently no one understood my accent, and I could understand very little they said either.  This is only half my fault I maintain, since others will testify that dialects and accents do change quite markedly throughout China.  But a simple word like “bing” you’d think would be no problem.   But you would be surprised.  “Bing” (snapped); “Biiiiinnng” (drawn out); “bing” (sort of squeaky high pitch); “Binnnngggg” (low and slow).  None of these worked. Eventually we’d get there and one of the girls would go out to the freezer, scrape around in the bottom and come back with a sad looking plastic bag filled with snow scrapings (often with bits of food from the bottom of the freezer).  Throughout the week, the sharper ones would see me coming and be off for the ice before I’d reached the counter, but you’d be amazed how few the sharper ones were in number. 

 

I had also read that sports massage of the tight muscles that have put pressure on the tendon to overstrain it, is good for its recovery .  By about day 5, the tendon felt well enough that it wouldn’t be too sore to be manipulated a bit so I strolled down to the counter once more and was pleased to have something else to request for a change.  One massage please.  Why certainly sir, right this way.

 

I was ushered upstairs into a different part of the hotel and led into a room with two big double beds.  The attendant then came back with a glass of hot water and a plateful of seven of the tiniest little satsumas I’d ever seen.  She then flicked on the TV and went out.  I sat on the bed and began to undress.  When I was most of the way done, a different girl came into the room holding some clothing.  She was quite attractive, with long black hair scrapped back in a pony-tail, and wearing just a white t-shirt and white tracksuit pants but barefoot – like she was about to engage in a bout of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. 

 

I was down to my underpants by now, so she held out the clothing.  It turned out it was for me – a pair of beige fluffy pyjamas with friendly-looking hippos all over them, and about seven sizes too small.  I put them on.  I think they would have been better suited to my nephew Jaspar.  Anyway, I tried to explain to her that I would like her to focus particularly on the backs of my legs (the problem area) and told her about my bad tendon (“geng jie”).  I’m not sure that this altered her game plan much as she told me to lie on my back, which I duly did.  It was just as I was wondering to myself how she was going to manoeuvre herself around me if I was lying on a big double bed that was attached to the wall, that she leapt onto the bed with me. 

 

The word that keeps coming back to me to describe what she then did to me is this – wrestle.  If you can imagine watching a wrestling match in which one contender simply lies there and refuses to fight back, then it probably would have looked something like my massage.  She pulled me, she hit me, she stood on me, she kicked me, she cracked me and yanked and cajoled me.  She stroked and flicked and pinched me.  She pulverized and pounded every muscle I had.  It was wonderful.  At one point, she had straddled me and had the palms of her hands pressing as hard as she could on a part of my body I can only describe as my loins, for a good 30 seconds.  The Chinese and their pressure points, eh?  I think we were both a bit embarrassed by this as her head was only a couple of feet from mine –she looked away rather demurely and I couldn’t help suddenly taking a keen interest in the smoking advert on the TV.  I longed to break the silence by saying something like, “I must say, it’s jolly kind of you to help me with my dodgy tendon.”  But alas, I lacked the words. 

 

I returned to my room feeling like the proverbial steak that had been tenderized and just a tiny bit in awe of this woman.

 

On the sixth day, on my daily walk I had ventured a little further, over the ornamental “wind-and-rain” bridge not far from the hotel.  Along the length of this bridge under the arched covering, dozens of little groups of aging folks sat around up-turned boxes playing marjan or Chinese poker.  As I glanced out over the river, I was a little surprised to notice some heads bobbing around in the water below.  Several people were out having a refreshing swim on this mild November afternoon. 

 

On the far side I could hear some music and came upon a very small square in which perhaps two dozen old women were marching up and down to what I took to be an old Communist anthem.  Each carried an enormous red hankerchief that was folded into their belts while they clasped two corners in their wrinkled paws and flapped away in time with the music and each other.  It was all very neatly done.  I have this on video which I will put up soon if I can.  It was certainly an interesting sight to stumble upon on an afternoon stroll. 

 

Once I had finished recording this, a girl approached and asked in English if I could take a photo of her and her friend.  Of course, no problem. 

 

So started a conversation that led to us arranging to meet the following day and she would show me some “local things of interest”.  It turned out what she wanted to take me to was the so-called Enshi Grand Canyon.  I had never heard of this but again if you look it up online you will see even more staggering natural phenomena you never even knew existed.  It’s not even in the guidebook.  I was quite interested by this, but unfortunately it didn’t happen for two reasons – 1) it required a lot of climbing steps which I couldn’t do, and 2) then next day it bucketed down with rain. 

 

We eventually met the following day when it was still raining and she took me to an old fort, built in the style of the local minority people – the Tujia.  It was an impressive building and we watched a show of Tujia song and dance.  I didn’t really enjoy this since all I was thinking about was that my ankle still was not right and now this weather was terrible.  Was I going to have call it now and try to get to Xian by bus or train after all?  I didn't want to but it was looking like the probable outcome. 

 

Meanwhile my friend Susan was being very sweet.  She was only 22 but spoke actually very good English compared with every other person I have so far met in this country.  She was waiting to take up a job with ICBC – a Chinese bank – in Enshi. Her parents were from there but now lived in Shanghai, and he had worked most of his career for ICBC too (who’d have thought nepotism happens in Communist China too, eh?) 

 

The following day she called up again and asked whether I wanted to join her and her friends to do some singing.  “You mean karaoke?”  (I really didn't feel like it BUT, I thought, I can't miss this opportunity to hang out with some other people – especially people who weren’t wearing a red jacket!)  “Yes, sure why not?”  And so I found myself with this very kind and friendly girl, and her brother and his wife, her sister and another friend of hers, in room 201 of the local KTV bar, drinking beer probably three times as fast as any of them were, singing away to Coldplay, Abba, U2, David Bowie, Queen, The Police, Michael Jackson and anyone else I had a mind to (the selection wasn’t bad).  This was certainly my Lost in Translation moment (perhaps without a Scarlet Johansson).  I confirmed once again that I am not good enough at singing that anyone would enjoy listening to me, but not so bad that I am too embarrassed to have a go.  Perhaps this is the worst of all worlds (at least in the land of KTV) but I did have a very fun evening, and my ankle felt a lot better too (maybe all it needed was alcohol after all).  So I went to bed feeling positive. 

 

The weather had helped clarify things too.  Monday was to be awful again, but it was clear on Tuesday.  So on Monday morning, I descended those familiar stairs with a good deal more purpose about me, and asked for the sixth and final time for an extension to my stay, to which the receptionist responded with her customary courtesy and filled out yet another deposit form for me. 

 

Bidding my new friends farewell and saying thank you to all the staff for their kind care and attention with the warmest expression I could muster, while repeating those same tired old words “Xie xie ni”, I was delighted, excited and apprehensive as I packed up my bags once more, ready for the adventure to continue….on the morrow, as it were.

 

Incidentally, thank you to ALL those who have expressed their concern and best wishes for the recovery of my ankle.  I am pleased to say as I write this, I’ve been back on it for over a week now and it seems to have held together well.  Thanks in particular to my dear sister-in-law Abby, who advised me that a week of icing like this an injury is just stupid, and to Alastair Wilson who gave me the confidence (after a trans-continental Skype consultation) to bite the bullet, get back on the bike and give the thing another go.


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