What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? I don't know, but I think something like that is gonna happen when I travel China. Explosions. Mayhem. Crowds of people running around in panic, yelling, "Waiguoren!"
China has a reputation for making Western travelers lose their temper. It's a difficult culture to understand, a difficult culture to feel comfortable in. In six days on the road, I - a veteran traveler - have already: walked out on a restaurant before I got my noodles; insulted the government for not allowing foreigners to stay in cheap hotels; yelled at a waitress because there was too much celery in my spicy beef dish; gotten sick of people saying, "waiguoren" (foreigner), and "Hello!!" whenever I walk past; and been offered dog meat.
Thus far, the biggest problems I've faced have been 1. most people are stiff and conservative, though friendly, and it hasn't occured to me how to have fun with them; 2. all the lakes in Inner Mongolia are too shallow to swim in; 3. the hitchhiking is bad; and 4. I'm not used to having so much money saved up, and I don't know how I should spend it. I'm confident I'll resolve those problems; maybe I'll hire a professional shopper? Meanwhile, there've been good times ...
I revisited my childhood friend, Pat, and his girlfriend, Tian Ye, in the northern city of Shenyang. Again, pettite but sly and confident Tian Ye kicked my butt in board games: Chinese checkers and "go". Black-pigtailed Tian Ye decided one day that "Frank" was a fine name, and so she changed her English name from Taylor to Frank for the day, as we went and toured Shenyang's "forbidden city".
"I wish all of China looked like this," I said. We were in a palace complex, made up of imperial reddish logs for walls, and yellowish sticks for roofs which slanted upwards like mighty tidal waves. There were vast courtyards where armies may've marched, shady courtyards where round-ball pine trees poked through the cement, stone gardens and a looping bridge which proud Frank sat on while we took her picture, one-room buildings with open walls that had served as government offices, and the large mansions where Mongol empires had sat and their families had lived.
Snarling stone dogs with marble eyes guarded buildings. Snaking dragons had been carved into some walls and painted yellow and blue. Red, yellow, green, and blue colors decorated the area between the walls and the roofs; overhead paintings included a crane and a red goldfish. One building displayed artifacts, including a lavender tea-bowl, and a periwinkle vase that had trees carved into its half-open side.
After a week in Shenyang, I said good-bye to Pat and his lovely Frank, and I took a train up to Inner Mongolia. My plan was to hitchhike west through this underpopulated province of horses and grasslands.
Before I'd left Shenyang, Pat led a lesson in his language institute on the subject of: "Will people pick up my friend Justin, if he tries to hitchhike in China?" The unanimous answer amongst his students was: "No."
Nevertheless, I somehow caught seven Chinese rides in the next few days, traveling 400 miles. A few drivers asked about the money I'd be giving for the ride, and I readily responded I wouldn't be giving any. They accepted, happy for the opportunity to help an American "pengyou" (friend).
This method of travel gave me plenty of opportunity to impress people with my Chinese speaking ability, and to practice my poor Chinese listening ability. During one ride, my Han Chinese driver picked up a Mongolian couple, who were to give him "ershi" (twenty) yuan for the ride.
-- Interjection: Mongolian men have small heads and dark-tan skin - reddish from the sun, especially beneath their eyes, where they seem to have plates that come down and broaden their faces. Mongolian women also have these cheek-plates, but their skin is sandy, and they often wear their hair in a single braid down to their butts. --
The Mongolian asked our driver about me: "Ta bu xiang gei qian?" (He doesn't plan on giving any money?) The driver said, "Bu shi, ta bu xiang gei qian. Ta bu gei qian!" (It's not that he doesn't plan on giving any money. He is not going to give money.)
Another memorable thing was when a truck-driver picked up his phone and, in response to his wife's invariable question, "You good?" said, "Jiande meiguoren dou hao." (Everything's good when hanging out with an American.) This round-faced Chinese man had eye-slits so narrow his eyes often seemed pupil-less, and he was giddy to talk with me.
He drove us through grassy sand dunes, on a road full of yak-sized potholes. But, in most places, there was neither sand nor tree, only grass, and the land opened up and spilled downward and rolled around and rose gracefully in the distance, and in the middle of all this land there was only one adobe/brick house with some sheep nearby, or there was just a white-plastic-covered, Mongolian yurt.
I should mention that, except for Zhang Guochao the trucker, all of my rides have come from Han Chinese men driving very nice cars: possibly, they're privileged government workers. The only other exception was a friendly Mongolian boy who drove me through his town to a silent mountain I could camp on.
"The reason why we feel so good when going to a great forest or a hill is because our spirits are usually cramped." - Chuangtse
Two nights ago, I slept in my sleeping bag on a vast green plateau - the best place I've slept in this grassy, windy, camper's paradise. "It's all mine!" I yelled involuntarily. Oops, I didn't mean that to sound so possessive! The carpeted plateau seemed endless, the mountains in the distance seemed endlessly far away, the sun was sliding below those mountains, I was juggling a tennis ball with my feet, the stars were coming out. Aahhh ...
And the best man-made thing I've seen in Inner Mongolia has been the Beizi Temple - a part of the "forbidden city" of Xilinhot Town. I stumbled upon it.
It looked like a typical "forbidden city" building - with orangish wood; swallows flying around it; red-line-patterns on the bright blue underside of the roof - but there was a meditative silence amongst the people of the courtyard. The building was open-walled, and inside it Buddhist monks with shaven heads wore orange-and-red robes and sat on the floor in silence. The peasants in the courtyard held prayer beads in silence. I felt like I could learn a lot here.
Elsewhere in the courtyard, triangular and bright-colored prayer flags hung messily in a tree. Metal barrels with drawings on them - prayer wheels - waited for people to spin them. Entering a small building, I found Buddhist idols: blue-red-and-orange, monstrous hippos sat like emperors on thrones; they stepped on people, or women with bird heads, who lay down at their feet. Pretty weird.
At the temple's entrance, I sat down beneath Mongolian script. The script was curvy and it connected together like English cursive, but the letters connected together downward, not sideways, and I didn't understand a letter.
A big, Chinese man wearing pants and a button-down shirt and brimmed hat - all white, like a pilgrim's - sat down beside me. In Chinese and English, he told me all about the different kinds of Buddhism. But, I didn't really understand anything. I think Mongolians and Tibetans have the same kind of Buddhism, though, while the rest of China has another kind.
So, yeah, there've been great times. But, even with Inner Mongolia's "waterygreen gourd" (I made that name up) to keep me hydrated, I think it's too hot to keep trying to hitchhike everywhere. And my taxi rides to the good hitchhiking spots are more expensive than a long train ride, anyway.
until next time,
Thanks to Yang Fenglin; 2 guys + Tian; Xilideke; Zhang Qingwen; Zhang Wenjiu; Neil, Zipporah, & Chris; Zhang Guochao; and Zhao Lixie + a girl for rides!
Much thanks to Pat & Tian Ye for the place to stay!