I wake from a restless sleep, my eyes struggling to cope with the prospect of leaving their dark world. The alarm buzzes again, I ignore it for a few seconds before succumbing to the irritation. At first a dream noise, it slowy brings me into reality. “07:30 already?”. I had set my alarm early so as to have time to prepare myself for the days activities. Normally I would roll over and give my mind time to adapt to the onslaught of the real world, but this morning my throat burns from the virus which has disabled me for the last few days, and my bladder joins in the insistent pushing by threatening to release itself where I lie.
The dark room starts as a mix of formless sillhouets, slowly revealing themselves as my eyes adjust to the surrounding soup, “Thats right, I’m in China, in a hostel.”
I sit up with a slow deliberate effort born from the ache in my body, sitting vertical sends a thump through my head and a groan emanates from somewhere deep within, “time to get up mate”, I tell myself. I steady my footing on the cold wood floor and put all my might into rising, for a second my weight threatens to bring me crashing back down onto the soft mattress and its waiting embrace,but then I am up and moving.
Stumbling into the bathroom, I obey my bladders commands, lean against the wall for support, and release the previous nights intake, sighing deeply with the relief. Stumbling with eyes still half closed to the mirror above the sink, I stare at the slack skin and black rings which make up the reflection staring back, “Today is not a good day to be travelling”, I tell the half person in the mirror. With that revelation a cough racks my body, sending a dry heave up and out, the toilet bowl fills my vision, and muscles spasm painfully trying to divulge anything and everything I have. “No go”, I havent eaten much in the last few days, and the heaving stops, thank God.
My bags are nearly packed and lie waiting to be hoisted on weary shoulders once more, “not yet”, I tell them. The previous night I had done my best to prepare, fearing the possibilty of feeling as I do now, sure I would not be up to the challenge, and rightfully so. I pick up my clothes, which lay waiting on the opposite bed, and start to dress on unsteady legs, there is only one way to face the day, I need a coffee and a cigarrette. I know the smoke wont do my already collapsing lungs, or my burning throat, or the taste in my mouth any good, but my mind needs it if I am going to cope, and the coffee will compensate for the taste.
Dressed in clothes already worn once too often, I open the door from my room to the world as quietly as possible, and step out into the light. “ow”, my eyes burn at the sudden glare, and it takes a second to adjust. The door closes behind me and I make my way across the deserted courtyard. Cobblestones cracked from weeds desperate for energy find my feet as I creep to the main exit. The door is closed, and despite my best efforts, it creaks and groans in protest to this early morning affrontage. The owners dog is triggered by the sudden clamour in its domain, and starts barking, it doesnt let up until everyone knows all is not well. The owners mother pops through a
seemingly hidden door, her usual public grace somewhat askew from her own burst into the land of the living. “Nee How” I blurt out. Already knowing this is as far as the conversation between us can go, but she says something to me in a dialect completely foreign and follows it with a look of expectation. “I go walk” I lie, not wanting to offend her by buying my coffee elsewhere. Hers costs a dollar more, and besides, how long would I have to wait before she completely wakes? I am already crumbling under the strain of this interaction and need my sustenance.
I break out into the waiting streets of Lijiang, and head in the direction I know will provide what I need. It is Tuesday, and people are doing what people all over the world do on a Tuesday. Kids dressed in matching uniforms make their way to schools hidden behind high walls, people drive or walk to jobs with smiles born of acceptance rather than anticipation, and all around is the smell of something mysterious being boiled or fried.
An old woman walks her energetic dog along the streets, stopping every now and then to let it sniff and bark. In China old people look old, and she is the embodiment of this tar brush. Ancient eyes gaze through wrinkles impossibly deep, her bent and crumbling body, 2 feet shorter than its younger self, hobbles along the pavement watching life go on at a pace she could’nt possibly evoke from her own time worn flesh. She seems content to be a spectator and walking past,smiles at me, breaking lines set in place by years of expression. I smile back, the act a deciept of my current pain, but it makes me feel good nonetheless.
I order the coffee and stand around in a foggy haze, waiting for it to brew, not really thinking, not really still. What seems only moments later, I am handed the elixir, and step back into the street. I first sip the coffee to ease the pain in my throat, the warm thick caffiene burns away the raw scratch and pushes out some of the weariness still clinging to my mind. I light a cigarrette and take my first drag. The smoke passes through my lungs and into my blood stream, my brain reacts by releasing the chemicals needed to create that feeling of well-being only smokers know, and my nerves begin to settle. The effect on already assaulted lungs doesnt help in any way, but everything else becomes manageable. This, is addiction, and it feels glorious.
Now awake, still sniffing and coffing but ready for the 9 hour bus ride which is to follow. I head back to the hostel, pack the rest of my things and wait for Marty to do whatever it is Marty does in the morning. The owner and his mother are attending to their duties, but stop to question my wellbeing, “better”, I lie. They have been overly, but sweetly concerned, and try to get me to eat a banana. “You no eat yesterday!”. They have both been extremley friendly, and this morning is no different. We talk in broken english until Marty comes downstairs, and we are ready to leave. “I send you email” promises the owner, and then he and his mother walk us to the door and wave us along the street. Friendly people.
The Journey Begins
We catch a taxi to the bus station and walk into a familiar site, people are strewn around smoking in no smoking areas and stocking up on supplies for the coming journey. Our bus is already waiting, but with 20 minutes to spare I decide not to make the same mistake as before, and head to the toilet. I never expect much from the toilets here but this one isn’t too bad, I take up my position and begin the much practiced event, when a Chinese guy comes up beside me and assumes the same position. Obviously interested and unused to seeing many westerners, he takes the opportunity to stare at my exposed flesh. Not wanting to dissapoint, I angle towards him so as to
allow a better view, why not, I’m pretty happy with it. I walk away from the urinals wondering if this is how black guys feel when the curious white bloke does the sneek peak. Of course in China it is less sneek and more stare, but you get used to it after awhile.
The bus is fairly small and somewhat lacking in leg room, probably not so much for the locals, but it is a tight squeeze for Marty and I, and I know it is going to be a long ride. The bus leaves on time and our less than amiable driver starts off at a slow, safe pace through the city. It doesnt take long before this gives way to a more hectic nerve wracking drive. In Thailand they drive in a way which at first is terrifying, but once you settle into it, you find there is a method to their madness, and the lack of hesitation is the reason they manage so well. In China, this is not the case, although there is plenty of madness, more often than not disaster is only averted by a hasty last second jerk of the steering wheel, it definately feels less controlled than in thailand. Nevermind, we are on our way.
The first half hour or so sees Lijiang slowly slipping away, outside of the old city it becomes less attractive and more like the development I have come to know in China. It is a shame how these places seem to have lost most of their charm, and I am hoping that we eventually find something closer to my expectations. Although perhaps it is my expectations which are the problem?
Climbing through interlocking mountains, Lijiang becomes a hazy metropolis in the distance, The hills become more engrossing and the housing more sparse (although sparse is a relative term in China). After about an hour we turn a bend and I am shown an incredible view, Jagged mountains surround us, their crumbling facades enveloped by trees and grasses brushed onto ancient canvas. We drive along the edge of an abyss, round and round. The mountains become larger and the natural greenery becomes interspersed with rice paddies and small groups of houses. The paddies are built into the mountains on any surface horizontal enough to accomodate them, the sky is a blazing blue and it ignites the water lying just below the dense crops waiting to be harvested.
Through all of this, music plays in my ears, manipulating my moods and emotions by the changing melodies they provide, always though, a variation on wonder at a country finally making good on its promises. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, as I am becoming accustomed to this natural flowing landscape, we turn another corner and my expectations become filled and overflowing.
Before me, in a valley stretching several kilometers across and as far as the eye can see, surrounded by mountains of green and brown, lies a town constructed from dreams. In a place carved by ancient rivers, lies acre upon acre of emerald green fields. Stretching from one edge of the mountain chain to the other, seeming to flow far into the distance like the river who’s place the fields have taken. The curving shapes of thousands of rice paddies snake in countless forms across the valley, almost glowing in the sunlight as the pools beneath them reflect the heavens. Scattered in a seemingly random pattern amongst the fields are dozens of islands, each island defined by a hundred houses and a few small shops, glued together by dirt paths flowing from one doorway to another, there is an element of tradition to the style, but they are mostly basic, small, modern buildings, more beautiful than anything in Dali or Lijiang, because they are real.
Connecting each of these scattered communities is a dirt road, wide enough for the occasional vehicle, but built to be used as they are now, for the horses and carts, for the people carrying woven bags and hoes, and for the decrepid motorbikes kept running by the skill of their owners. In comparison to its scale, it seems deserted, perhaps 50 people are scattered amongst its vast expanse, tending to their livelihood the way they have for centuries.
Herein lies China, vast and beautiful.
Culture and history live along these stoney dirt paths, writhe amongst its fields, and whisper through the alleys and homes in a place which seems immune to the outside world. How I long to jump off the bus and spend a lifetime lost in a valley which should never be allowed to change. We drive around its expanse, looking for the next road which will lead us away from this paradise. All the while I am treated to its glory, for some reason it is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen. Simplicity, history, culture, humanity. All are evident in its glorious existence. The world will one day lose places like this, I am glad to see them before they are no more than an image hanging askew on someones wall.
And what is the name of this place? I have no idea, no signs hang for tourists to know of its existance. No guesthouses loom above its glory, inviting it to be seen. It is not an ancient city, or a natural wonder, it is a true reflection of life, it is what travellers look for, but miss, because it is on the way.
The truth is, there are probably many places like this around the world. For some reason, this time, my eyes were open, and I saw, this, my Xanadu.