The countryside gave way to swathes of industrial gloom. Red brick factories with broken windows glowed with pale light and belched endless rivers of smoke into the sky. The lights of the towns went on in the twilight and the hanging bare lightbulbs of wooden shacks cast the shadows of men hunched over television sets. On the road, a group of men stood around a car with a crushed fender and a big concrete hospital stood in a vast dirt clearing with its windows of brown glass. Stacks of bricks and tires lay out all over the road, black-belching tractors backed in and out of makeshift loading docks; a hunchbacked old lady wandered through looming piles of gravel and dirt; farmers pushed hard along the road on bicycles and a cement mixer tumbled its circular turns, lit by a floodlight, surrounded by peasants in straw hats. The air was choking and full of soot and the road stretched out on the long flat land and in the distance stood the skeletons of factories being built. Men squatted in fields of pavement, bartering cigarettes. It was dark now and along the roadside men walked in single file, dozens and dozens of them, carrying shovels in one hand and buckets in the other, stepping like a silent army, in a long line as far as I could see, their shadows danced on the road and they stepped quietly along lit by the floodlights of the factories. We closed the window to the choking soot and my hands were covered with the scent of oranges.
The bus came to a halt inside the city and I got off at a traffic island and put the wheels and saddlebags back on my bicycle as motorcycles whipped past me on both sides. I was to wait right here for a friend of Mr. Hu’s who was on his way to pick me up.
In front of me, a shopping mall gleamed like a palace, and all around it, dim and sooty odors collected in the street. Soon a crowd had gathered and the questions were followed by compliments on my journey. “Li Hai!” “Zhen bang!” Formidable; truly excellent. A crowd of curious Chinese folks was always as kind as a group of doting mothers. “Aren’t you tired? Do you want any water? Please be careful and do not die!” The men all asked how much my bicycle cost. Three high school girls in strange Bon Jovi haircuts and sequined jean jackets were giggling nervously and then the bravest one asked, “What are you doing tonight? Want to come out and have fun?” Two men were checking the air pressure in my tires; one of the girls rested her hand on the seat; a few people were staring blankly and probably had just come over to see why there was a crowd.
Then a small, two-door Wuling sedan pulled up and a tall fellow in a leather jacket stepped out and introduced himself. His name was Ban and he was going to take me to Mr. Hu’s resort. We spent ten minutes packing the bicycle into the little automobile and by now the crowd had no less than fifty people in it. The girls were calling to me for my phone number and I waved from the car as we pulled away from the scene.
We drove through the sooty clanking town of Kentucky Fried Chickens, wide paved streets, plastic palm trees, concrete alleys, and blazing neon signs. A map of Liuzhuo from the Tang Dynasty showed a small square of pagodas at the center and the rest of the page was dedicated to sketches of mountains, rivers, and trees. The only other thing I’d heard of the city was a folk poem:
Be born in Suzhuo
Live in Hangzhuo
Eat in Guangzhuo
Die in Liuzhuo
Liuzhuo had once been famous for its coffins. The Communist Party outlawed burials in the fifties in order to reserve land for farm use and to combat ceremony and superstition. The industry had mainly faded away.
We drove alongside stands of tall commercial buildings and odd plastic plants that lined the sidewalks and then we were on the outskirts. “It’s a good thing you called Hu,” Ban said. “You would not know that Liuzhuo is a beautiful place.”
The city had dispersed and the road was lined with the silhouettes of trees. Dogs barked in the darkness and fireflies drifted in the air. I hadn’t a clue where we were going but that didn’t matter and Ban and I talked about China. He was a motorcycle enthusiast and told me about riding from Liuzhuo to Lhasa and discussed my journey. I asked him if it was alright to sleep outside in Guangxi. “You have to watch out for snakes; it could be dangerous. As for the people, they will not hurt you in Guangxi,” he said. “But in when you get to Yunnan, you will have to find out for yourself!”
We drove several miles down a dark dirt road and pulled up under a sign that said “Resort.”
It was a series of bungalows connected by bamboo staircases and railings covered in flowers and vines. Ban and I went into the dining hall and for a dinner of mushroom soup, duck, pork, chicken, steaming rice, fish (always served whole), vegetables, red wine, eggs, melons, tomatoes. After the enormous meal, Ban took out a pack of iridescent blue cigarettes and leaned back in his chair.
“All of China is on the move. People young and old are coming from the countryside, shen shan ye ling—from deep mountains and wild hills, to do nong min gong migrant labor.”
“What do the people want?”
“The country doesn’t want to be strong like a dragon; we just don’t want to be slaves to another nation ever again. Still, it’s a suffering time. The thing that you call culture is in our hearts, inside of us. It will come out again, but not now. This is not our time for culture. It is a suffering time. Some families only have a few pairs of clothes in the winter. When the father goes outside, the son must wait inside for him to return with the coat. Even long life isn’t good enough when life is that! They don’t want it. People in the countryside will follow the wave. They want to chihao, zhuhao, eat well, live well. They want to learn how to get rich, have a car and brand name clothes; then they can meet a girl, a girl can meet a boy. You can understand what I’m saying.”
In the afternoon, we got in Ban’s car and rode out into the countryside. Motorcycles parked beside the sugarcane fields and farmers in their cone hats and headwraps threshed the cane with scythes. Water buffaloes waited in the fallen cane next to their unhitched carts and swished their tails about to keep the flies away. We passed a small village of mud huts where children rolled around in the dirt wearing seatless pants with their asses hanging out. Ban looked out the window admiringly and said, “Very beautiful, like Santa Fe.”
The village economy was based on passion fruit and this was how the men knew each other. The village headman had begun to sell his crops to a soft drink company in Liuzhuo. They all spoke in the Guangxi dialect and Ban had to explain things to me. The headman brought us into the main house, a cavernous concrete room unlit and dark in the daylight except for a glowing television set with a kung fu movie playing in front of a row of small children seated on the floor. Two pots of chicken boiled on the fire and on the walls hung the mass-produced photograph posters that I’d seen all over China: women in bathing suits, generic red sports cars and waterfalls. A little boy in a red sweater toddled around holding a bunch of bananas and looking at me with complete curiosity.
The headman took us out into the fields where the passion fruit grew. There was a stagnant green pond, some cows standing in dried patches of mud and a few stands of simple brick houses. Three little children sat on a stack of cinder blocks and simultaneously burst into tears when I took their picture. We walked over the green ridges of the hillsides and into a valley where rows and rows of wooden arbors hung with snaking green vines. Green bulbs of passion fruits sprouted on the coils and the headman touched them fondly, smiling and explaining that this was an early sign of a good harvest to come. The viney fields stretched out towards blue cleft mountains rising low above the gardens of fruit. I had not been able to see any of this on the drive since it’d all been hidden by the high fences of sugar cane. The sky was deep blue in the afternoon and a long path went through the rows of arbors and stretched on toward the mountains. I asked the headman where the path went.
“It connects us to the other villages past the mountains,” he said. “Sometimes people from the other villages will walk over and spend the night. We have big parties with drinking and dancing! See that over there?” He pointed to a hut on stilts, a bit like a hunters blind. “That’s to watch for thieves in the fields, but we’ve never had any, only friends.”
The path was beautiful in the purple-green land. If I had been a boy here I would have set out immediately to sleep amongst the hills and find out what was beyond.
“Did you ever want to leave?”
“Me? Never! I am fifty-eight years old and I was born here. Nature has given me this beautiful place to grow my passion fruits. I have my health and I am happy. No other thoughts seduce me. Look at my vines: each of these small flowers means a fruit will grow.”
He was smiling broadly and took two passion fruits from his pockets and ducked under the arbors, clucking at the chickens and woofing at the dogs and breaking the fruits apart to give to his animals who were crowded around him. He sat down on the ground laughing and petting his dogs.
When we returned, dinner was ready. Twelve of us crowded around a low round table in the courtyard. It was laid with bowls of hot sauce, peanuts, fried chicken, pork, soups of chicken and fruit, and of course a bowl of passion fruit. The men spit the chicken bones out on the floor for the dogs and a child walking about tried to pee on the ground until an old woman chased him off, whacking his behind with sugarcane reeds. A man holding a yellow-suited baby walked by us and hissed toward me, “Does he drink snake bile wine?” “Yes I do!” I replied and he brought out a clear glass jug the size of a barrel. Inside the clear yellow liquid, roots and spices floated about around the bodies of two dead rattlesnakes. He poured us each a glass of brew and we clinked them all around. The meal was winding down and I looked at my plate of chicken claws and a slice of liver that oozed red blood. When I looked up I realized I was already drunk. The men pulled out the luminous packets of blue cigarettes and welcomed us again. Then the drinking games began. Two of the younger men, one in a dusty suit and the other, a barrel-chested fellow with ruddy cheeks and black hair standing on end began a game like rock-paper-scissors; the drinkers threw out their hands making the hand-signals used in Chinese bargaining. The aim was to guess the total after three rounds. The table erupted with the sounds of numbers and the screams of defeat and the drunken glee of victory.
The snake wine was passed around again and it was clear that the drinking table was a time for boasts. One of the men crowed that last week he’d caught a cobra in the fields as thick as his forearm. “I put it in the stew pot with two chickens. Delicious!” The barrel-chested youth began his part, “In my village, my family grows watermelons so big that it takes twenty people to finish one! My brother has 130 sheep and next time you come he’ll kill one for you. But now we must wrestle, like warriors!” He stood up and pounded his chest and we all howled with laughter. I stood up and we toasted again with the snake wine and agreed that we would hold the match for the next time. The sun was going down and I walked away from the table towards the clearing under the willow trees.
I went and sat on a log under the willow next to an old woman who had been sitting under the tree all day since I arrived. I noticed that she had a facial spasm and twitched her lower jaw up and down non-stop. She pointed to a small brick house and told me she was born here. She was eighty-four years old. A boy of about eighteen sitting behind me leaned over and told me that she didn’t speak Mandarin. He translated these two biographical bits and I thought of the tens of millions of countryside youths moving to the cities and asked him what his dreams were. “All I want,” he said, “is for this place to get better.” He sighed and surveyed the rows of houses and the sugarcane, the dust settling from the butcher’s departing ride and the table in the main courtyard where the men were howling with happy drunken noise. I wanted to throw my arm over him and tell him I loved his village, but I did not. He was too silent, sober, and determined.
Later on in the car ride back to Liuzhuo, Ban told me his thoughts on the jolly headman.
“I don’t think he really feels that way,” he said. “For him, the price of going out of here is too high. He grew up amongst the passion fruits, yes, but he wants people to come here and visit and buy them. He wants the money, you see. This is human nature. Desire. People want many things.
“Ordinary people worry about three things in China: sickness, education for their children, and shelter. They are so afraid to spend money so they just save it in the bank. The problem with our health care is that the doctors charge commissions because some people would run off without paying. Now you have to pay first, so even in a road accident the doctor will say I can’t help you because you don’t have money. You can see why people are afraid not to have enough. But his two children there will go to school. For them, life is good.”
He was skeptical of the man’s happiness, but as we rode along in the moonlight in the waving fields of cane, I felt there had to be some out here who could step out of their houses at night and have those words exactly. “Nature has given me this beautiful place. No other thoughts seduce me.” We rode on and the cool wind blew through the car and I hoped this could be true.
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.