At long last, the tree

I have a fan boy. I only mention it because it’s not something that happens often in the field of historical research. You can imagine my excitement.

Of course, when said fan boy (who is also, as it happens, a security guard at the Guangdong Provincial Archives) spends an hour at a time chatting at me in a freewheeling and, to me, largely indecipherable mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese while I’m trying to read and take notes on documents, the novelty starts to wear off. But still.

Actually, as of last Friday I took leave of my fan boy, not to mention the rest of the archives staff, and, of course, Louis of Citibank Guangzhou, because I’m now in Taipei. I admit, I was sorry to leave this archive. It was by far the nicest facility I’ve worked in anywhere in Asia and second only to London in the worldwide race to build the prettiest archive ever (it was built only last year, and it shows).

Moreover, they’ve opened all sorts of wonderful documents from the 1950s, which in addition to being helpful for my dissertation, have allowed me to brush up on my communist Chinese vocabulary (you know: struggle meeting, malevolent landlord, agricultural collectivization, rightist, counterrevolutionary, running dog, capitalist roader, Nationalist bandits, and so forth).

I admit, however, that only a few days ago my feelings toward the place were not so warm and fuzzy. Over the course of the last few weeks, I had applied to copy a stack of documents – some up to 20 pages of really tiny Chinese type – and because my previous copy requests had all been granted, did not think much about the outcome.

On Wednesday morning of this week, with just two and a half days left in the archive (they close early on Fridays. So China), they told me that none of my copy requests have been granted. None. The girl behind the desk (who lives across the street from me, so we sometimes walk home together at lunch) commiserated with me, and said that in her opinion, the head of the archive is somewhat … overzealous in protecting documents from foreigners. Unfair, but unavoidable.

Again, China. I got through what I could, laboriously taking notes and copying Chinese characters, but by Friday morning there were still three multi-page, fine print documents left. That’s when the girls at the desk really came through for me. It turns out that they were not merely feigning sympathy, but were quite genuinely concerned about my research. When I went up for the last few files with next to no time to read them, instead of the files, they handed me a disk. On the disk, were all three documents, typed. They had typed them up in their spare time while I was frantically reading the other files. This is a whole new level of archive service.

Anyway, I have promised Guangxi Province travel stories and these I will deliver. In June I had the supreme privilege of having friends from home in town– Sarah is my classmate at Georgetown, and she and her boyfriend Danny were traveling around China for a while and started their journey in Guangzhou. They took a few days in Guangzhou to relax and sightsee, though that first day it became glaringly obvious that I was also new to town and not able to be remotely knowledgeable about the terrain. Really, it was the worst tour ever. The company was great, but it was definitely a low point in my life as an amateur tour guide. We started with the Sun Yat-sen memorial, which involved a concert hall, a tiny museum consisting mostly of Chinese documents with no descriptive titles, and random trees and bushes named for mythical animals, like dragons and phoenixes, but which did not bear any actual resemblance to said animals, even if one squinted hard and turned one’s head.

Frankly, I imagine it would take nothing less than a fifth of bourbon to make those trees look like their descriptions, and I imagine that drunken tree gazing is frowned up on the grounds of the memorial to the Father of Modern China. There were also several “ancient trees” which did not even date as far back as imperial China and therefore failed to qualify in any discerning garden aficionado’s mind as ancient. (The astute among you might have noticed that I have previously mentioned Sun Yat-sen as having been memorialized in Nanjing. That fine structure is in fact where he is buried; however, Dr. Sun was from Guangdong province, so the memorials to him in these parts are abundant. Boring, but plentiful.)

From there we went on to lunch (some pretty random noodles which, in Sarah and Danny’s case, were served with unidentifiable chicken parts), and then decided to head to some of the famous markets on our maps and mentioned in their guidebook.

Now I can say with some authority that we certainly visited markets. There is not a doubt in my mind that we were in areas where things were being sold, and they were being sold on the street and in small, market-like stalls. However, I am not at all convinced that we were at any of the markets we were looking for. The first two contained Random Junk, and it was hard to see why anyone would get excited about them. Lots of soft, cartoon-character cases for cell phones and fake plastic flowers. Then, after much walking, and some backtracking, we came to roughly the location of another famous market.

I say roughly because we found a series of merchants hawking fish and puppies (for pets, no worries, though yes, dog is consumed in China, and in South China not even in Korean restaurants. The standard – and very old – joke is that the Cantonese will eat anything with four legs except the table. This witticism ignores the fact that the people of South China will eat many things with fewer legs or none at all, like snake and frog and so forth. Of course, as we have seen over the course of the year, so do I, apparently. My, but how the mighty have fallen). But as an approximation of the infamous Qingping market (famous not only as a large, bustling outdoor market, but also as the site where the illegal civet cats were sold that ultimately transferred the SARS virus to the Chinese people and, from there, to the world), it was something of a humbug. Still, we faced south and walked to the left and found the street on the map immediately east of Qingping, then walked to the right and found the street immediately west of Qingping. I’m not sure how it happened, then, that the street in the middle did not seem to be Qingping. It is one of those mysteries of life, I suppose.

Ultimately, we ended up on Shamian Island, which is the former site of the British Maritime Customs Service (a.k.a. Arrogant Imperialists and Capitalist Roaders), a great deal of colonial architecture, and the current site of the American consulate. We admired the river, which looked precisely like a river, and was even, if fact, the river we were looking for, which at the end of this day felt like no mean feat indeed. Then we went to dinner at a bizarre restaurant that caters to the foreign crowd and claims to cook specialties from all world cuisines with equal skill. This should be viewed quite skeptically.

Sarah ordered Japanese Shrimp Tempura from a picture (which did look like shrimp tempura), but was surprised to be served shelled shrimp in some kind of curry sauce. After a long argument with the waiter, which ultimately involved the manager and finally the cook himself, everyone agreed that what was sitting on our table looked absolutely nothing like the picture on the menu. I’d been rather lazy, and in the meantime I read the Chinese description of the dish more closely: while the English just said “Japanese shrimp tempura,” the Chinese read, “Japanese style shrimp curry.” Never mind the fact that curry is about as Japanese as guacamole is Russian; in neither language should the shrimp have arrived without breading. The cook seemed ultimately to come to terms with this point, and some minutes later we were served breaded shrimp – that is, whole shrimp, with breading.

That means that the breading was attached to the shells, and when pulling off the shells, the breading, naturally, came with it. Still, we felt that we had won a moral victory of sorts, and accepted it. Only after the first few shrimp were consumed did we discover them to be resting on what was undeniably a bed of vegetable and potato curry. Sometimes it is best to quit while you’re ahead.

The second day were out touring Guangzhou together, we had a much better plan. We highlighted temples and markets and mapped it into a geographically logical route. Then it started to rain. The thing about rain at this latitude is that it does not come all that often, but when it comes, it has a monsoon quality about it. Hard and fast, and that day at least, long. Very long. We ended up ditching our pagoda plans in favor of a very leisurely lunch, the managed to take in a mediocre temple (I’m getting hard to impress in this area, I admit, though it was the oldest in Guangzhou and for that reason should likely be cut some slack) before the downpours began again. Then we cabbed our way down to another temple containing a couple of hundred gold statues- which would have been really impressive if they had been ancient relics, instead of reproductions a third the age of the ancient trees at Dr. Sun’s place- and we dashed through an outdoor Jade market, lingering at the one building that had many merchants under a single roof. As tourist adventures go, it was not an impressive day. Wet, though.

That night we flew up to Guilin, in the north of Guangxi Province. We spent a day hanging out, seeing the sights of the city. We started in a former Ming dynasty palace (a minor palace, for family, not the emperor himself), which included a bizarre little exhibition hall in which the lights for each room had to be located and turned on separately (we ended up following a Chinese tour closely to avoid disaster), and an odd little dance was performed by two women who seem to sit behind a curtain in one of the rooms for hours waiting for someone to come by and witness their show. We climbed the Solitary Beauty Peak behind the palace for a lovely view of the city, then took off for the Seven Star Park.

The Seven Star Park is so named because it has seven mountains that are supposed to be in the shape of the big dipper (we couldn’t see it, but if someone else can, more power to them). This part of Guangxi province was a communist stronghold during the revolution, a fact that was instantly apparent as we entered the park and noticed a tall stone with a row of characters carved in it. Now this in itself is not all that unusual in China – in Xi’an, there are carved bits of Tang Dynasty poetry everywhere, in Beijing Qing dynasty literature, in Nanjing Ming literature, usually things related to nature and the scenery and so forth. But in this case, the characters read, “Long Live Mao Ze-dong Thought,” which to me would be better suited for, say, a meeting hall than a park, but perhaps the park is a nice place to go and contemplate the wonders of Mao Zedong thought.

Actually, though, the park itself was a nice place to observe Chinese capitalism in action. They had separate admission tickets for the park and for its greatest attraction, a large series of caves. The caves were a fine example of how neon lighting can be used to make visiting something not inherently all that exciting into a major event. We had to enter in groups, to be taken through the caves by a guide who would turn on the elaborate lighting in each section as we arrived. Many of the assorted stalactites and stalagmites were named for what the parks’ founders thought they resembled, which left us all squinting at the brightly lit, colorful and misshapen masses of rock trying to see a camel kneeling before a dragon or an old man visiting the theater.

On the bright side (as if the caves weren’t bright and garish enough), the park outside the cave had its own unique qualities. We went into the zoo, a very sad place, where an elderly and lethargic tiger was available to pose for pictures with your small children on its back (this does not strike me as being a terribly good idea under any circumstances, but anything for a few kuai, right?). In the zoo, we also saw the oldest living Panda in captivity, who at 36 was so ancient she did seemed to be past moving and content to lie in the shade, barely breathing.

Actually, we were among the very last people to see her in even that state, as the state media reported she died the following week. Another attraction in the park was the monkey, uh, area, where they wander at will and you wander among them, perhaps feeding them a few things they shouldn’t eat to tease them out of the trees.

In the afternoon, we grabbed a bus down to Yangshuo.

Yangshuo is a famous tourist area in China, something made obvious by the fact that along its main drag, West Street, you’ll see more English than Chinese and every restaurant’s menu sports, in addition to the standard Chinese fare, pizza and banana pancakes. I confess to being a bit puzzled about the supposed centrality of banana pancakes in traveling westerners’ lives – they’re even mentioned in the Lonely Planet – but still, a bit of a break from the standard fare is worth a visit in and of itself. But there was actually an additional reason for going there.
Traditional Chinese paintings depict scenes of scholars sipping tea and thinking sage thoughts out in the midst of oddly thin and rounded mountains that stick up into the sky looking like nothing that could possibly exist in real life, except that it does, and that is the skyline of the country around Yangshuo.

There are two recommended methods of seeing the countryside: one is to rent a bike and explore the paths, and the other is to take a boat up or down the nearby river. Since we had several days in Yangshuo, we thought we’d do both.

I was, from the start, wildly enthusiastic about the idea of the bike ride. I think that all of that biking around Nanjing sort of got to my head and made me overconfident about my cycling capabilities. After all, in my months of biking there, I never actually caused permanent damage to myself or others. I may have hit a few things here or there – other bikes in traffic, a parked bus, whatever – but no long term consequences had emerged from these mishaps.
What I failed to really note, however, is that there is something of a difference between taking your bike down the nice paved road with its wide bike lanes and taking it out for a spin on a rocky path that is sometimes a path and sometimes merely a single-tire-width suggestion as to which way one might go if one was crazy enough to try to bicycle through a rice paddy. What’s more, the path started out wide and paved, so the real difference was not immediately apparent, and in fact, only stood out in retrospect once quite far beyond the point of no return. That point being, of course, when the path back is as ugly as the path ahead.

The trouble really began with the maps. There were four total – the good one, which we lost before we even got out of Yangshuo; the pretty one, that was a fine keepsake but lousy for directions; the cave brochure one, that was intent only on directing us to a tourist trap we had no plans to visit; and the local one, hand-drawn one purchased off a man who gave us such elaborate directions I felt duty bound to accept his handiwork in exchange for two kuai.

With a solid plan to sort of follow the river up to the last bridge to cross over, and then come down the other side – paths for which all the maps showed in varying colors and scales – it came as a bit of a shock when we found ourselves spit out onto a highway far, far off course. None of us remember ever seeing a place where two paths presented us with a choice of roads, so the fact that we had made a wrong turn somewhere along the line was all the more perplexing. After a brief and terribly un-scenic jaunt through town, during which a kind women heading our way led us back on course, we managed to make it to the bridge.

At the bridge, the locals tried to talk us into hiring one of their boats to ride down the river, claiming that the bike path wasn’t great and that their way would be much better. Seasoned China Hand that I am, I scoffed at this. I mean really, I can recognize a tourist trap when I see one. They were just assuming we were unaccustomed to the exercise or easily cowed by warnings of ugly biking ahead, but we were not so easily daunted. A fine example, if ever there was one, of being too clever by half.

The bridge over the river alone should have clued us in to the fact that not so many people choose the bike path over the river boats. It was a series of steep stone steps, and pulling the mountain bikes up and over was not easy (well, for me anyway, which could have more to do with a lack of upper body strength than any inherent challenge in the task. Still, if bikers often traveled this route, there’d be a narrow ramp on the bridge to push the bike up. These are everywhere in China, er, everywhere else, at least).

Down on the other side and heading off, we started on an uneven path with huge rocks that made for a really bumpy ride. Unpleasant, but not impossible. This situation created some sense of overconfidence, I think. Whereas the path on the other side had many different paths available on the map and absolutely no visible intersections in real life, this side had plenty of intersections, but only one route marked out on the maps. From there, the path began to narrow.

By narrow, I mean it went from being a couple feet wide and epically bumpy to being the width of a single bicycle tire before averaging out at around a foot wide. The challenge increased when the right side of the narrow path dropped steeply, if only about a foot, into a muddy rice paddy, while the left side was lined with trees.

Here is where my lifelong steering deficiencies really worked against me. I was
incapable of staying on the path.

Twice I slipped off the path and down into the rice paddy on my right, then had to pull the bike up and try to get going again. Each time I fell, I got to be more concerned about my ability to stay on the path in the future, and the likelihood of falling only increased.

Ultimately, I overcompensated and landed in a tree on the left side, which resulted in about a half a dozen scratches on my arm but no permanent damage. I think, though, that in reality it might not have been my steering so much as the tree itself being overaggressive. I have something of a history with killer attack trees, but most vivid recollection being that one in the garden at UNC Charlotte that popped out of nowhere and took me down when I was out jogging one afternoon. I had some nasty scrapes from that incident, and I’ve never really trusted trees since then. In fact, I think I can blame the threatening nature of the trees on the left for my constant drops off the path to the right – trying not to get too close to something I knew could strike at any time.

It only makes good sense, really. At least this time, I escaped largely unscathed. When I finally decided to walk the bike, that proved no better, as I still slipped off the path and submerged my foot to the ankle in thick mud. Sarah and Danny struggled as well, but to the best of my knowledge did not fall off or hit trees. At all. Bit annoying, actually.

What’s more, I ended up covered in mud, and the two of them were only slightly dirty. I was, of course, the one with all the recent biking experience, whereas they both admitted it’d been a few years since they’d ridden. That, my friends, can be called a pretty serious loss of face for me. Call me chagrined.

Muddy and disgruntled as I may have been, we all shared a different problem: we were lost.

Quite lost, actually. Fortunately for us, we happened upon two other slightly shell-shocked bikers who no doubt were joining us in our wonder and amazement that the sales pitch for the boats was not merely hyperbole, but the honest-to-goodness truth, and they kept receiving directions from local inhabitants, which they would then relay back to us. When the worst was over – that is, when we were back on a rocky and difficult path that was once again a few feet wide (though my confidence was badly shaken, and I nearly fell a few more times) – we managed to get a few snap-shots of nearby mountains, small villages, and mostly submerged water buffalo.

When we finally made our way back to Yangshuo, close to five hours after we’d left, I made another discovery. In spite of my SPF30 sunscreen, I was pretty badly burned (blasted Norwegian skin). Not just badly sunburned, however, but oddly sunburned, which is infinitely worse. I had weird lines on my back from where my tank top and slid around, but far stranger, my forearms and especially the backs of my hands were bright pink up to the knuckles, where a stark line divided them from my pasty white fingers – the fingers that were curled around the handles of the bike and therefore not exposed to the sun. Lovely.

Thank goodness I had put all thoughts of appearances aside and donned my floppy sun hat for the duration of the trip, or I’d have had a Rudolf nose to match my glowing hands.

The really sad part of all this is that although we took a number of pictures and saw some lovely scenery, we did not manage to get to the place we actually headed out for in the morning. Sadder still was the fact that by the end of it all, we didn’t particularly care. We were content, instead, to visit a (slightly humbug of a) park, clean up, and then sit around at nice tables, waving fans, drinking beer, and working out crossword puzzles from a book Sarah had brought along.

The next day, we hired a boat to take us down the river and to a village, which we walked around a bit before boating back. We had bargained down the price on the boat, but typically, we probably still paid twice what the trip would cost a local. My only comfort there is that we saw the receipt book for other people booking trips, and they all paid more than we did, so if we were being cheated, and least we were all cheated together. Perhaps the most interesting site in the village came from looking in the open doors of homes and seeing the large, lit up Mao Ze-dong portraits, usually shown flanked by lesser images of Zhou En-lai and Deng Xiao-ping.

The village appears to be as poor as it has ever been – certainly, life in one of those homes could not be easy, and we saw people out walking cows and washing clothes in the river – but each lowly hovel now boasts a big screen T.V., which must be accepted as the positive proof of the virtues of communism. The peasants still work hard, die young, and live in poverty, but now they have access to state-produced soap operas to help pass the time. And, it only took 50 years to reach this glorious condition. Long Live the Communist Party and Mao Ze-dong Thought!

The boat ride itself was thankfully uneventful (not being able to swim, I would not have enjoyed any antics that resulted in falling in), and we lounged on chairs in the sun (my palms carefully placed upward, to protect my poor, blistery skin from more abuse) and watched the riverbanks slip by. A little shopping, an absolutely huge serving of Beer Fish (the local delicacy, aside, of course, from the banana pancakes where are not actually indigenous to China), and many crossword puzzles later, we were heading back to Guilin, where our diverging plans would take Sarah and Danny on to Beijing and myself back to Guangzhou.

My apologies to everyone for the fact that this message was long overdue. I’ve only hurt myself, really, because by swearing for so long that it was coming, I’ve likely only built up a few unreasonable expectations for how interesting the content would be. I can only say that I’m sorry, and that I have no idea when the Taipei stories will arrive in your mailbox. See, I learn.


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