Century Dust

A portion of this chapter appeared in Travelers' Tales China, 2004.


Lijiang, China, is my poor man's Tibet, as close to the Rooftop of the World as my travel visa will take me. Just a few hours' bus ride from the border of the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region (a euphemism as transparent as any of Jim Crow's), I imagine the smell of musty lamaseries, look down from heaven-high mountains, hear the triple-voiced chanting and the low deep drone of prayer horns... but my imagination must fill in the gaps here. Because while Lijiang's people are marked with mixed-blood Lhasan traces, and the mountains that hold the city in a bowl are snowy-capped ideals, the town itself puts forth a broad bland face of Communist grey.

At least, on quick first glance. Wandering around on foot, I realize there are really two towns here: the imposing, uninspiring Central Committee issue, complete with gigantic Mao statue hogging up the main square, and then off to one side a smaller, older town, straight out of history or ancient myth. Here canals dance and trickle through flagstone streets, past low tiled-roof homes, under arching footbridges, through dirty laundry the Naxi tribeswomen squat to scrub in mountain water. Old men sit and watch the hill-tribe girls come down to market in fantastic red and orange headdresses and earrings the size of coasters, judiciously choosing among the bags of herbs and dried fruit, while behind them the river runs along the foot of old, old wooden brick buildings. Here is a soul Tolkein might have imagined, Middle Earth alive in the Middle Kingdom, and the two towns sit rump to rump, the undiscovered folk village quietly swallowed up by its big, faceless alter ego.

Even by Mao's fifty-foot, arms-uplifted deification, the mountain people go about life with an openness and simplicity I sense they've had for centuries past centuries. In the shadow of Mao's armpit, little snack shacks coax in backpackers with fried peanuts and milkshakes and Naxi fries – shredded piles of crisp potato drizzled with hot egg yolk.

I'm sitting in one of the Naxi cafes, leafing through the scrapbook the owner keeps by the door, scrawled with names and nips of wisdom from a decade of young expatriate Western drifters. Some self-styled nomad has left behind a challenge: "Get out of the safe backpacker towns and see the real China! Get some balls and take the risk." Self-righteous, but I can see his point – though Lijiang clearly qualifies as "roughing it" in the lexicon of most Western tourists, how authentic is my view of a China that offers milkshakes?

But the fantasy of going balls out, cutting ties with other Westerners and seeking virgin territory, has several drawbacks. One, I speak no Chinese besides a few mangled bits picked up along the road. And two, some parts of China are still not open to foreigners, or if so, only nominally. There are towns where guesthouse owners aren’t allowed to put up non-Chinese, where absolute power rests in the hands of the local Party cadre. Any foreigner adventuring out to those distant burgs risks deportation – or worse – and there are many, many other places I'd like to see besides the inside of a Chinese jail.

So I have to cut a compromise, leaving aside Marco Polo dreams for the relative security of Lonely Planet guidance. As it is, there are more places on the backpack circuit than I have time or money to see; and out here in the hinterlands, there are plenty of pure glimpses of "real" China.

Like right now out in the square, beneath the Mao monolith. People are going about their business, lugging laundry baskets, market vegetables, kids in tow. A narrow-faced man in a blue peasant cap peers from behind the statue, quietly observing the scene; I watch him watching. In his left hand he carries a wooden flute, and he strolls to the middle of the square and begins to play a sprightly circling melody that carries cleanly through the mountain air. Within a few minutes, the mamas are putting down their laundry baskets, their market vegetables, and are forming a circle around the man, hands clapping, smiles breaking out. The women and children start to move in their circle, palms raised to join their neighbors', the little piper bowing and jaunting now, and soon the whole group is caught up in a spontaneous folk dance, a bouncing clockwise shuffle. Their hand-made aprons flapping in the breeze, the kids in bulky red and yellow sweatsuits, the looping melody all form a mandala of white teeth and laughter, while around their circle a larger group gathers to watch. The bony Pied Piper has brought a moment of magic purer than any "official" folk dance put on for Westerners on a government tour.

Or like the next day, as I'm wandering the back streets of the old town and through an open door see a group of young Chinese around a pool table. They look about my age, suaving around the worn green felt in shirts unbuttoned to the chest. "Ni hao," I offer, and they greet me warily, curiosity showing through the cool. Before long they offer me a game, and I display rusty skills and the Chinese kids warm up, slapping my back after a good shot, laughing good-naturedly when I miss. They can't speak a word of English, but it doesn't seem to matter; here in the dim cramped pool hall we find a new, older language, that of two tribes meeting on the trail and letting gestures, smiles, body-speak convey our eagerness to learn and trade. Before I leave I know their names and ages, they know I come from Florida (one of three or four American places, I've learned, that most people overseas seem to know, along with New York and California – pity the traveler who comes from Delaware, Arkansas, Wyoming, Wisconsin...) and we've made plans to meet that night, one of them pointing to his watch and signaling eight o'clock.

With a few hours to kill, I sublet a bike and strike off into the countryside, the dirt road stretching infinitely. There is nothing, absolutely nothing beneath this enormous ceiling of sky except the long straight road cutting through grain fields. In the distances are mountain ranges, and the music they make with that endless blue sky and the straight dirt ribbon sings in my ears like the mantras of Heaven. I stand to push the old bike's pedals faster. The world has never been so enormous and filled with light.

That night, my "dates" show up right on time, knocking on my door politely and greeting me with smiles. The oldest-looking one takes charge, handsome in a clean white shirt and dress pants. He leads me down the street while the rest of the small group clusters and gaggles, still some light in the mountain evening sky. We head to a park in the south of town, bare lightbulbs swinging overhead in long strands; and below the lights the whole town seems to be gathered, kids running or rollerskating around, parents laughing, the easy winding-down of a hard workday.

A deejay is blasting Mandarin pop music at jumbo jet volume, and as the night darkens colored lights come up around the music booth and people start to dance. The older kid in grey and white gently takes my hand and leads me onto the improv dance floor – there is nothing odd about this, same-sex dancing and hand-holding being the norm here as in other parts of Asia. In many ways, it's less scandalous for a young person to dance with a friend than with someone of the opposite sex. The other dancers look me over with mild curiosity, but none of the shock that a weiguoren receives in the bigger cities. Here at this country dance, nobody seems uptight about anything.

After a while, I've danced with all the guys in the little group, and we're sitting along the fence beneath the fiesta-colored lights, smoking butts and watching people. One of the quiet guys in the group seems to be working up the courage to say something. Eyes embarrassed behind his glasses, he reaches into a briefcase he's been sporting all night and hands me what I can tell is a prized possession: a glossy color photo of a .357 Magnum, cut out of some gun enthusiast's magazine. The picture is as lavishly shot as any pornography, light dripping off the long black barrel. While I stare at this, not sure what to feel, the kid in glasses says to me the only English words I've heard from him or his friends: "America," he says, pointing to the gun. "Very beautiful."

Next morning I’m sitting in a little cafe in Old Town, the canal running right underneath the floorboards, dusty sunlight pouring in the open door. There seems absolutely nothing better to do today than sit here and write letters and soak up China.

Someone calls out from an upstairs window, and I look to see a mouse-like old man waving and smiling. "Come and see my shop," he invites in careful English; beside the door I see the sign in beautiful script, Liu Shao-Kang, calligrapher.

Upstairs in his museum of a room, wooden tables pile high with scrolls and ink pots and brushes and stone chops. A sheet of glass on the desktop pins down postcards from foreign friends who have visited old Liu, scenes from exotic Denmark and Oklahoma. Liu and a crony are dressed in identical blue Mao jumpers. When I ask to take their picture, they pose with stiff pride, a smile cracking Liu's withered little face, his bony friend gravely at attention.

It's the Chinese of old Liu's generation who really fascinate me, who have lived through the most turbulent century of any people I can imagine: last emperor to young democracy, autocratic Kuomintang to butchering Japanese invaders, civil war uncertainty to Mao's crazed ideological leaps that over the decades left half the country starving or imprisoned or gone mad. Through it all the stolid Chinese peasants had plowed ahead, kept their heads down, shrugged and hoped for the best through the death and loss. Now their children are the young folk of potential and promise, their grandkids toddling around on the brink of the new century that would bring unimagined wealth and power to China.

Liu just smiles when I ask him about the changes; it's good politics not to talk politics, but I get the sense he's going about his life the best he can, without putting too much stock in the shifting breeze from faraway Beijing. In the street outside his shop, an open air gallery is selling framed lithographs of Marx and Lenin, Mao and Zhou Enlai. A few younger Chinese men peer at the portraits like museum curiosities, then stroll away.



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Copyright © 2006, Peter Delevett