Walkabout

Baise

It was the biggest city in 500 miles—prefecture-level—which meant that its administrative responsibilities extended into the surrounding counties and countryside. The bus ride went through golden autumnal hillsides and I sat next to a boy my age who was going to Baise to work on the power lines. His parents were farmers. “Like those ones,” he said, pointing at a man and woman in a small, parched field by the road, bent down under huge bundles of straw. I asked him about his village. “We need more technology,” he said.

The bus went down the mountainside and into a yellow sunlit valley where concrete hovels and glass-fronted stores selling clothing and electronics were clustered around a winding river. The city center was mostly made of concrete. We pulled into a huge field of pavement where buses choked and spattered black fumes; drivers darted in between bicycles and tractors, and swarms of passengers loading and unloading satchels by the sides of the buses.

I got out, reassembled my bike, walked over to a less chaotic corner of the bus yard and dialed a number I’d been given. A young lady picked up and told me she would be there shortly to meet me. Soon, a small silver car pulled up and a jowly man in thick glasses and a buzz cut stepped out.

“You are Jonathan,” he said and shook my hand rapidly. “I thought you would be coming on a bicycle.” I showed him the bike and explained my stomach trouble and we piled everything into the car. The girl who had answered the phone turned out to be his daughter, a pockmarked girl of seventeen. We drove around the corner to the tall concrete “World Business Hotel.” The man strode up to the desk, signed a few papers and shook a few hands, grinning duplicitously; then he wheeled around and smacked his hands together. “Upstairs!” he shouted.

We piled into the elevator and a timid bellhop showed us into a small square room with a single bed, a rickety chest of drawers and a small television. It seemed great to me, but the man took a few paces across the floor and shouted at the bellhop: “This will not do! Give him a bigger room!” We filed out and went up a few more floors to a giant cavernous room with a king-sized bed and windows looking over the courtyard and its red Chinese flags. On the dresser there was a stand-up menu for an escort service on the fourth floor and a box of condoms. “This is fine with me!” the man shouted again. “You must rest. We will see you for dinner.”

After a short rest and an attempted shower under a freezing trickle of water, I went downstairs to find my hosts. The daughter was in the lobby and she took me out to the courtyard where her mother, a tall regal woman in a dark dress, stood next to a silver BMW. The woman did not smile when I introduced myself and she held out her hand to shake mine. I got into the front seat next to her. There was still a white placard dangling from the air vent on the dashboard, which she had not removed, apparently savoring the newness of the car.

It was dark out and the orange lights of the dashboard glowed as we drove slowly and silently through the city. We stepped out of the car in front of a refurbished pagoda. Red banners hung in the streets:

Happily Happily Go to Work. Safely Safely Come Back Home. 

“You missed the carnival,” the woman said to me.

She walked silently through the square, pausing in front of the popcorn machines and balloon animals. A stage was being disassembled and musicians packed their instruments away in black trunks. The woman did not smile or even move her mouth, and when she stopped in front of one of the booths, selling frogs or fish in bowls, she barely regarded them with her eyes. It seemed like some kind of a perfunctory duty; she slowly walked with me and her daughter by her side, paused in front of something and then moved on again in silence through the crowing vestiges of the carnival evening. We went into the pagoda restaurant and into a private room where her husband was waiting for us. “There you are! It is time to eat!” he shouted. Everything he said was with a shout, followed by a dubious grin and then a rattling boom of menacing laughter. Next to him stood a young sidekick sporting a too-large blue business suit and an ominous leer. As we sat down around the table he began digging through a bowl of peanuts, spilling the shells and shavings all over his suit.

I was seated opposite from the patriarch and immediately he barraged me with questions. Where did I learn Chinese? How long would I be in China? How did I know Mr. Hu? He was red-faced as he asked, and he growled at the waitress to bring us a few rounds of baijiu. He asked how long my travels would last and then let out that loud laughter that is never simple mirth and in his eyes were anger and incredulity. The rest of the table followed with nervous laughter and the wife and daughter who called him “Lao Ban” (boss) averted their eyes.

The dinner turned silent eventually and the family rarely made eye contact. When it was over the girl and her mother offered to take me for a drive through the town. We got back into the car and the woman switched on a CD player, a disc of traditional Communist songs.

I talked to the girl. She was in her final year of high school and was preparing to take the national college exams. The competition was overwhelming and she never got to sleep enough. If she did well, she could go to school in the provincial capital, Nanning. I asked her about her dreams and she said she wished to move to Canada. She spoke somberly and without joy, as though it was one last uncertain reward at the end of a long list of duties and chores: “My teachers showed me pictures. I think it is clean there,” she said. Soon we arrived at a supermarket on one of the main streets. I was surprised to be taken here. Then the woman began to speak.

“When I was growing up in my village, there was never enough to eat. All of our food was rationed by the government. We could eat chicken only once a month. Look at what we have now. It is like a dream to me. I never could have imagined.”

We walked along the brightly polished aisles stacked with shining cups of yogurt, bottles of soy milk, and cartons of eggs. Laundry detergent and bars of soap and cleaning supplies lined the shelves in brightly colored packaging. Sealed bags of noodles and dumplings and chicken sat in the glass refrigerators. The whole room glowed with cleanliness, and the fruits and vegetables were shining on the shelves under the halogen lights. It was, indeed, a place of abundance.

The mother and daughter dropped me off at the World Business Hotel and drove back to their home. The girl had to begin studying and said she would be awake late into the night. I went back into my room and sat on the big empty bed looking out at the pulsing lights of the town.

I woke up the next morning and the mother and daughter came to meet me for another drive around the city. We drove up a paved hillside to an enormous courtyard overlooking the city. A blocky statue of Deng Xiaoping in Red Army regalia, right arm raised high, stood over the city, smiling down on the cranes and lumberyards and the smoky haze that rose above the concrete rooftops. Behind him was a stocky stone edifice like a bunker, the Baise Uprising Museum. Baise is somewhat famous as the site of Deng Xiaoping’s attempted revolt against the Nationalists in 1929. Guangxi was remote in those days and Deng managed to raise a small Communist army out of the minority groups in the area. The uprising against the Nationalists was not successful however, and the survivors were forced to flee into the mountains and eventually joined up with Mao Zedong on the Long March. Nonetheless, it provided ample opportunity to erect a shrine to the endeavor and much of it focused on Deng’s brief stay in the city.

The museum was filled with weapons and documents from the uprising. There was a photograph of a farmer’s two handprints on a contract selling his son to the local landlord. A painting of soldiers storming a room full of officers eating duck, fish, bread, and wine. Peasants in the streets beating red drums, shouting, lighting off firecrackers. Soldiers raising rifles in the air. All the memorabilia was arranged to give a sense of undivided purpose and order.

I realized how much the woman reminded me of these painted figures, in her silent dignity, sitting with firm posture and staring outward in her big silver BMW, listening to the old marching songs through the night.

I asked the girl what she thought of Chairman Mao. “He is irrelevant to me. I don’t think of him at all. He was seventy percent right and thirty percent wrong.”

The girl and her mother went back to their errands and wished me goodbye. I still had many hours before the night train to Kunming.

Before I went to the train station, my host picked me up and we took a drive through the city in his BMW. We drove into a building the size of a small airport hangar; a second long BMW, this one black, was in the middle of a concrete floor and five boys in ragged tank tops were scrubbing it down with turtle wax. This was his car and he had come to pick it up after its bi-weekly waxing. The boys were smiling and joyous and they worked hard, bobbing and ducking between each other to put the finishing touches on the car. My host paced the floor slowly, turning on his heels, with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his leather jacket. He was beaming with pride and joy and intermittently reached over to touch the sleek black machine with an outstretched finger. I had to use the bathroom and walked through the empty concrete hangar and up a ladder to a loft. There was a small squat toilet and a showerhead suspended by a rope. The loft was strewn with a few small cots, which were clearly where the boys slept at night, bivouacked together in one of the infinite ephemeral encampments of eager Chinese youth all over the country.

My host drove me to the station and as I stepped out with my things, he said:

“That’s it for Baise, is it? Now you’re back to traveling, eh?”

“Yes. Thank you again. Goodbye.”

I stepped toward the station and his horrible laughter filled the air behind me.

Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.