A Border of Dead Things
We had expected troubles at the Chinese border. This is natural, it is common. We got off the bus and were herded into a series of lines. The first was a disease checkpoint, wherein you were to "regard the machine" which I did. It was strange with many buttons. It was not turned on, but I fully inspected it anyway, attempting to ascertain its purpose. This passed the time up the first line, until we filled out a symptom card. On the list was "snivel" - I suppose they meant "sniffle" - and I was strongly tempted to check it because I was feeling tetchy.
We were released to the next checkpoint, and I found it interesting that the ground was littered with dead things, some birds, a few large beetles but mostly huge moths, dead or dying. They were brilliant, their carcasses were everywhere. The grass was a riot of yellow spots, red beading on brown wings, orange stripes. I don't know why they were all suddenly dropping out of the sky to die, I imagine it must be the change on the border from nature to insecticide and contamination, but I can't be sure. All I know is that the creatures of flight were falling to earth and sticking there, their pinions pinioned.
The final checkpoint was not easy to clear. The power had just gone out, so the line became massive, and soon deteriorated into a tumbling tide of groin-high elbows. The two persons behind the counter looked on the unruly horde with a removal like they were contemplating a shadow lengthen on a white wall. Things worsened as a half an hour ticked by, we were stuck in a riot and being pushed forward into an immovable object.
When the power finally switched back on, I had made mortal enemies with a girl in a frizz of dyed red hair and tight dressings. She had come on a much later bus, and had butted in before us, looking at my sour face and laughing in it, high and shrill, as she put her diminutive figure to use as an eel. She then started collecting a pile of passports from on-lookers as we sat, powerless, and I was considering how that puff of hair would make a great handhold and that bony body would give up a satisfying snap as she again gave me an ugly sneer. But at the pivotal moment I pitched Alex forward with a knee-jerk in his spine, and he fell against the desk, our passports falling into the hands of the young customs officer. He took them, and the face of my new nemesis fell like an underdone pound cake. It was immensely gratifying - I may not speak any Chinese, but I am conversant in some Asshole. The young customs officer looked at Alex, and after a time asked if he was secretly Russian because his middle name was Yaakov. Alex answered truthfully that he was not Russian, and his passport was stamped, one down, me to go. But with great misfortune, the clocked moved a minute on and it was time for the shift change. This took a good five minutes, as a new customs officer, a lady with glasses and copious acne, settled in with great care at the chair. Alex had been expunged from the throng by now, like a poisonous frog from the gullet of a snake, and I was a few heads back, unable to get closer. When she was good and ready, she leisurely flipped my passport open. I know by heart the picture that greeted her - a faded square of a lanky girl with white-blond hair, short and up in spikes, with a hungry face, round glasses and a septum piercing shot almost ten years before. She regarded this image for a while, a minute or so, just thinking on it and what it could mean. Then she lifted her eyes and scanned the crowd. There were only two westerners left in the tide, me and a teacher from Vientiane with a new beard - neither of us matched this description. She didn't look confused, she looked wary, cagey. She called out my name, and I popped up, prairie-dog like, from the tussle. "Me, it's me." I think I said. She called me in, the elbows let me pass until we were face to face. "YOU?" She said . "This is YOU?" She regarded again the photo I knew so well and compared it with the face I knew so well from the mirror: stout, brown hair, no noticeable piercings, a matronly sort even. The picture was that of something long gone a decade ago, a dead thing in a paling frame. I tried to explain. "Ten years ago. Look at the date." I said. She still didn't believe me. She showed the picture to a slew of military men, there were large gestures involved - they had to decide if I was the same person. I could have told them I wasn't.
There was apparently nothing they could do to preclude my entrance on the score of not being who you once were, and the legion left. But my troubles were compounded by the fact that my passport had run out of pages, I had traveled so much in the last decade, so I had sent it to the American embassy in Vientiane to have more added. I could see her considering the 1-20 pages covered in stamps and stickers, and the A-Z pages stuck in between, relatively clean. She flicked the tattered, frayed book back and forth under her glare again and again for a good fifteen minutes. She did not want me to enter China, she was desperately thinking of something that would prevent me from crossing the border. I would have naturally hyperventilated, but I was doing so anyway as the crowd crushed me against the desk, squeezing the wind from my lungs as I watched her contemplating at length a reductive story of my twenties in stamp form.
Finally she sighed, pianissimo, and gave me a paper to sign. I did so, I couldn't breathe, I flicked the pen quickly across it the thin surface and shoved it back. She looked triumphant. The signature did not match. I realized that ten years ago, I had a different signature, a closer approximation of my appellation. Now, I just sign my initials in a cursory scrawl - I may as well just make a big X. I realized my mistake, and snatched the paper back, tried to remember who I was once, what I felt, how I wrote, and tried again, impersonating myself. I didn't do a good job at it, but it was good enough, and she finally released me. Her deliberation on this point took over a half an hour, but it was almost worth it to see the murderous look on the frizzled dyed redhead as I finally passed into China, masquerading as a dead thing.Another New Jersey
Crossing from Laos into China was like going from the Appalachians straight into the slag heaps of New Jersey. Everything was rubble, trash, everything smelled like dead fish. The people on the bus were chain smoking and chain spitting, and the small track through the mountains was all sharp turns and big bumps. As we went further along and I relied on my miniscule fortitude to prevent motion sickness, I noticed that what I had considered to be mountains became hills, and real mountains began. They were trellised with farmland and concrete arches to prevent erosion, and striped in winding mist.
We finally stopped at the city of Mengla, and immediately decided we wanted to leave the city of Mengla. I really felt like I wanted to turn right around and head back, back to SE Asia, back to anywhere but this industrial sinkhole, but I persevered. The next bus was to Jinghong, and it was to leave in an hour. I left Alex at the bus station with the screaming hordes of people trying to be his new best friend, and set forth to find a bank where we could exchange our Lao kip.
I had wended my way through six blocks or so, noting the incredible filthiness of the place, the restaurants with sagging vegetables on counters and blackened pans before the concrete inlets of the anorectic interior, when I heard my name keening across the hubbub of the traffic. I looked back to see Alex gesturing madly. I ran to him. It was an hour later here in China, we had forgotten this and were about to miss our bus. Somehow Alex had run with two massive backpacks and two heavy bags belted about his person, like an ant with a substantial crumb, just to catch up with me. The fact our bus was leaving was suddenly of no consequence, although I really did crave expedient exodus. What was of import for me was how Alex had managed to run for six blocks with all those bags. I stood there on the filthy street, squalid men squatting in the gutter smoking and spitting, and I queried him, time against us, as to how he had done it. He said in jagged breaths that he just had to, so he did, and I took a precious moment to look at him with admiration. Then I donned my baggage and on the way back everyone was cheering, a group of lovely girls even percolated out of a shop to chant a motivational doggerel as we sped on. Alex was a hero, the man who had run with a mountain on his back.
We made our bus, only just, and spent the next five hours on more industrialized mountain tracks on the way to Jinghong. It was slower than needed because the whole country is being razed, top to bottom, and the small road was filled with big trucks ferrying stone back and forth over the blasted countryside. They were so massive that they couldn't even fit the width one way, and it was a two way road. So there were innumerable traffic jams where we would stop, get out of our van, and everyone would navigate the trucks through the track. The substructure just wasn't big enough for this sort of incredible destructive industry. I could imagine the scenery as having been amazing, this once remote, once pristine, once green Southern Yunnan, but it was lost to strip mines, factories and refuse dumps - just another dead thing.Jinghonging Along
We got into Jinghong in the early evening, and instead of a taxi engaged an old lady in a floral print dress with a bicycle hooked to a flat trailer. She pedaled us to our intended hotel, wheezing and puffing her way through the small city, slower than a toddler's walk. So it was we arrived at a hotel after taking two buses and an old lady.
We got settled and set out into the small city, teeming with hill tribe peoples, and I got a small dose of the culture shock I had been saving for America.
There were cars everywhere. It was loud. It was polluted. People didn't look at you - and when they did and you noticed they dropped their eyes. They were rude, shoving and cursing. They came in different shapes and sizes - some were fat, some slim, some tall, some short, some had wide heads, some small, some had huge ears, some had glasses. They were all Asian, but they were all radically different. Every Lao is unique, but they don't comb the genetic spectrum like the Chinese. I was in a thrall to find men with big noses or women with wide-set eyes. And everybody dressed differently, most in designer clothing expressing their consumerist individuality except for the hill tribes, showing their traditional stripes. It was wild. And men and women were touching in public. They were kissing even. There were advertisement galore, and some of these featured women who were extremely scantily clad. I was agog.
We had a great time in Jinghong, the food was incredibly good - the dominant ethnic group are the Dai, ethnic Thai-Lao from the old Siamese empire, so it had a leisurely gait. I even got to ride an ill-tempered afghan camel. I don't think he liked me very much.Kunming is the Sting
We liked Jinghong, but left on a ten hour VIP bus to Kunming because this was unavoidable. Kunming is where the railway starts, and it is a big bus route. We had to go.
It was a long trip, longer still because the "bathrooms" en route were concrete trenches were you squatted with everyone, no running water, no sinks. I was again glad that I have no shame, crawling past elderly piddling grandmothers crouched over a stinking pit for the opportunity to go pantless in public yet again.
We stopped for lunch at a dingy set of tables. I pointed at a dish, and discovered at my first mouthful I had at long last found the liver and intestines I had so been pining for. I let Alex finish it off, and succored myself with candy until we got into Kunming at five.
The bus station was madness. Men were sucking opium out of bazookas converted into bongs, hill tribe peoples were running up the luggage stacks like ants, their bright geometrical clothing shocking in its intensity, the fume from the buses was thick as a steam bath and coated everything in a yellow pall, and in and out of the haze dirty women were running up screaming at us in a language we didn't understand. We made haste out of the dreamscape, and found a cab to take us to a hotel.
More cultural shock. I had forgotten about rush hour. We sat for twenty minutes a block, just waiting - so many cars. This was a city. A city, I had forgotten what a city was like. It was raining, it was crowded, it was noisy, it was noxious, it was even chilly. It was full of billboards and neon shop fronts, featuring demented westerners in insipid pink jackets on a golf course. Do we all play golf in aggravating pastels? I don't know anymore. Do we?
We got to our hotel. I took a freezing shower and immediately got a voracious cold. It came on quick, but within an hour I was a font of phlegm, and it was worsening. We went out into the night for dinner anyway, and found an agreeable restaurant to pass the time - warm and cozy. We spent a long spell there reading and drinking Chinese brandy, which isn't nearly as bad as it sounds, before we went out into the rain to walk the long way home. We were impeded in our traverse by a cultural parade. It was midnight on a Sunday and Kunming was having a cultural parade. It featured all the hill tribes in full garb doing their native dances and a bunch of balloon teddy bears. Ok. We stopped to observe and take horrible photographs, but I was literally upended by one tribe, swagged in scarlet bolts shagged with silver coin kickshaws, who started springing up synchronized in turns and singing together, singing one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. I was leaning down low, in the dim light trying for a picture by stabilizing the camera on my knee, and I was transfixed. I listened through the drizzle to this lilting siren song as they all upped and turned, swiveling through the darkling, wishing I could fix the melody into my mind forever, that I could hear this song as I wanted, whenever I wanted. But they went on through the rain, on beyond me into the dim, and as if out of a trance I tried to stand up to follow them on. It didn't work, my legs were atrophied from squatting, I went sideways instead of up and managed to fling myself across the sidewalk. I was a grimy splatter pattern in the wake of greatness.
The next day I was well on sick, and it was still cold and raining. I had brought nothing but a few ragged tees and flip-flops. We forded through the grey city slick for a few blocks, until I broke down and bought a pair of shoes. This was the first time I had worn shoes, not flip-flops, but shoes, for eleven months. They threw in the socks gratis, it cost me five dollars. It was strange to feel my toes in a new found acquaintance to each other, and I hoped that none held a grudge though after a day I realized my pinky toes were disinclined to such proximity with the rest of my feet, and were staging a protest. We walked forever, trying to find the "old town" street - it was hilarious in its way. Everyone we asked pointed in a different direction. We wandered in circles in smog and rain, through shopping malls and fast food chains, wondering where we were and what were where doing there.
For more culture shock and to get out of the cold I insisted we go into a mall - a shopping mall. This is a ginormous structure where they sell vast amounts of manufactured commodities. It is sanitized and has a permanent smell of new cloth and plastic. It is not an old woman with a wooden table slicing up a chicken who smells like ginger and is spitting betel nut juice onto your shoe. They have these structures all over the US, a happy place where I still qualify as a "medium" or sometimes a "large." But in this antipodean parallel I could fit into no size but XXL, and even then only by unbuttoning my bosom region. It caused no end of merriment for the group of tittering saleswomen trying their best to fit me into their largest clothes. I was like a sad giant in dwarf town, doing my best to fit in and failing exceptionally. Afterward we stopped in a Chinese fast food restaurant - more culture shock here - where Alex managed to order slabs of dog food on gooey rice mush. Even looking at it made my stomach try to crawl out my ear and run for cover in a dimly lit corner. But my goat-bellied spouse downed it all, and after this grueling ordeal we sought refuge in a quiet bar where I ordered more Chinese brandy, picked up my mystery novel in the soft grey light through the drizzle, and let the afternoon fade.
The next two days I was truly sick, feverish, in full flush of bronchial infection and sinus impaction. But somehow I managed to hike through the Great Stone Forest. It was bright, light and warm, but I was lost in a thick fog, removed, faded, like a shadow falling on the stones. Then both of us got lost for real, in an endless series of steps and circling through caves, karsts and chasms. After a few hours Alex used his hunter-gatherer skills to navigate a way back by sighting a lone bus across a desolate plane. On this trek we noticed we had somehow discovered and thoroughly explored the "Forbidden Zone." I've seen better Forbidden Zones.
We got made our bus, got back to the hotel, and faced the eerie elevator with total exhaustion. Every day they change its bright red carpet so once the doors snick open you are faced with the huge words "MONDAY" or "TUESDAY" in dingy red shag. It is somehow incredibly disturbing. I walked up to the elevator to depress its shiny rectangular button and found I just couldn't do it. We turned around and there was a travel agent before us. We walked in and bought two airplane tickets to Shangri-la for 7am the next morning.
So here we are on the edge of Tibet in a honey wood house etched out of elaborate tiers and lattices under a cobalt blue sky, warmed by a pot-bellied stove. The air is thickened by wood smoke and old Tibetan men in women in bright clothing are dancing in a circle outside on the slick cobblestones to a simple melody crackling out of a radio. Today is "WEDNESDAY" and suddenly I'm feeling much more alive than I have in a long, long time.