Walkabout

The Road to Baise

I had spread my maps over my desk every night and studied them. Laos was still 1,000 miles away and I planned to be there by the New Year. The several days spent in the hospitality of this deserted enclave in the hills felt like distance lost right now and someone suggested that they drive me to the city of He Chi, a hundred miles away. This was the equivalent of three days of riding and we set off immediately after my meeting with Mr. Hu. The driver was a skinny, smiley fellow named Wang. We drove silently out of the city, surrounded by oil tankers and dump trucks full of bricks. The land along the highway looked barren and flat. Vast fueling stations stood by the roadside with dozens of pumps and workers shuffling about on oil-slick floors. Factories belched smoke surrounded by pink high-rise dormitories with laundry swinging on the cloudy breeze. A group of peasants shoveled by the road with carts and wheelbarrows like a Russian painting of twisted bodies working the land. Three men were raising a huge tire into the back of a truck in the pose of the American flag at Iwo Jima. The sky was a somber grey and soon there was nothing around us but fields of high sugar cane and distant bluish peaks. Wang leaned on the horn at every cluster of chickens, brick trucks, or motorcycles that came across our path. Night was coming and as soon as we were within a hundred meters of a car ahead, he started switching the high-beams on and off with a tick-tick-tick and blasting the horn.

“For safety,” he said and I nodded.

There was He Chi, barely lit, with no real street lights and only the usual motorcycle shacks and tool sheds with their solitary television sets and bare hanging lightbulbs. Green peaks rose on all sides of the town like a giant forest in the moonlight. A small night market was in progress in a few of the alleys and ruddy-cheeked women in puffy jackets walked back and forth haggling over warm clothes, live chickens, and canned military beef. All of these rustic impressions disappeared immediately when we reached the center of the town. We parked alongside a gaping hole the size of a football field, studded with jutting spikes of rebar. Dozens of welders sat around in the pit, emitting a glowing shatter of sparks. The main street was a collection of noisy karaoke bars and glass shopping malls and the sidewalks were lined with the most meretricious of all modern Chinese public baubles—a steel pole at the top of which flourescent light tubes stuck out in all directions. The tubes pulsated in flourescent blue, yellow, red, and green in a cascading pattern that emulated continuous fireworks, slow and pixilated in their limp cascade. Young couples walked along the street holding hands and staring up at the fireworks and old peasants shuffled along the benches, picking through the garbage cans. I found a three-dollar hotel up four narrow flights of stairs above a karaoke bar where grotesque caricatures of Jimi Hendrix and Axl Rose were painted on the wall. Axl was bare-chested and holding a crucifix. In the doorway some men were crouching, warming their hands around a bowl of hot coals. I heard a shriek of “Hello!” from behind me and looked up at a pigtailed girl with rolling eyeballs standing on a staircase and waving at me madly.

The room had a big clean bed and two chain locks so I settled it and went inside looking forward to quietness and solitude rather than venturing out into the sinister urban night. I stretched out on my bed in the windowless room and went over my notes from the past few days in Liuzhuo. Within an hour I felt a horrible dull ache in my stomach and rushed into the bathroom. I spent most of the rest of the night sitting over the little squat toilet, a porcelain hole in the floor with a nasty case of Montezuma’s Revenge.

An inordinate amount of the summer amongst fellow foreign students at Beijing University had been spent in debate over the merits of the squat toilet, which was new to most of us. For myself, I’d been long acquainted with them in similarly unfortunate situations, for instance vomiting all night into one while on a train racketing through the Rahjastani desert as a nineteen-year-old. Most people were horrified at the way that the toilet water splashed and ebbed about at their sandaled toes or that there were no walls between the public stalls in the hutongs of Beijing and you usually wound up sitting amidst several old men who were either holding a conversation or grinning at you in curiosity. None of that bothered me. What was painful was the feeling in your thighs when you try to crouch on them that way for too long. The old Chinese and country folk—this was clearly something louhou, behind the times—seemed to prefer the squat for all restful purposes and were often squatting by the roadside smoking cigarettes. One rarely saw young men in business suits doing this. The night passed uncomfortably.

The next morning I realized that I was going nowhere that day and would stay in town. I read over a government announcement later on, which declared:

“Smoke-lead smelter acid smelting works, the River smelter with an annual output of 50,000 tons of electrolytic zinc is a wide-peacekeeping entity with an annual output of 25,000 tons VAE emulsion. As such a large number of projects are completed and put into production, He Chi will further promote rapid economic development, and speed up the whole construction of the pace of building a well-off society.”

That seemed true enough to the spirit of the place. Most of the local news was about foreign investment, construction projects, and the new highway I had just entered the city on. I ascended a steep staircase up the mountainside that led to a flat concrete clearing where little umbrella stands were set up with vendors selling tea and soft-drinks. A tall stone statue of a local Communist hero stood in a patriotic pose with his pistol at his side, looking out over his small city of white concrete buildings nestled in the deep green mountainside. Beneath his watchful gaze, the people of He Chi shuffled busily through the streets with their briefcases or sacks of farmers’ wares. I stood there with the patriot, proudly watching his domain, and I liked the ambitious little city. In the morning I would be well enough to leave.

On the road out of He Chi, it took several miles to lose the traces of the city. I rode along beside dump trucks and buses full of migrants with bicycles and bulging rice sacks tied to their roofs. Eventually I wound up on hilly back roads where children flew kites in the wind and farmers walked along dirt paths from their fields to the tiny houses in bamboo groves. Eventually the cane fields gave way to rice paddies and fields of golden wheat waving in the twilight wind.

The freedom of the road was with me now and as the darkness was approaching, I began to search out a place to spend the night. I found a schoolmaster closing up the gates of a school and inquired about staying on the floor or one of the tables. He considered it but would not let me. I inspected numerous beautiful patches of ground amongst the bamboo groves but decided not to risk the chance of poisonous snakes (better to drink them). I inspected an abandoned mill made of bricks and overgrown with leaves, but this also seemed a place for snakes. Soon it was really getting to be dark and I met a group of farmers walking down the road with scythes in their hands and wheat flung over their backs. I said hello and explained my situation to them. I was looking for a place to pass the night and didn’t want to sleep outside with the snakes. A robust and good-looking girl with her hair cropped short like a boy’s told me that I could stay with her family. She was coming back from the fields and told me that we must wait first for her brother who was coming back from Shenzhen for the holiday. Within a matter of minutes, a rickety bus chugged up and a stream of country folk came out of it clutching rice sacks and woven luggage bags. A young man stepped out in cheap blue suit and flopping brown shoes; he had a cigarette pressed in his mouth and carried a tiny satchel. The girl put down her bundle of wheat and ran over to embrace him. He came over and shook my hand vigorously, smiling in the dark and clenching the cigarette tightly in his mouth; then we all walked up the steep muddy hillside, me pushing my bicycle, and the brother and sister chatting gleefully as the dark mud of the countryside splashed all over the young man’s city clothes.

The night was full of the sound of crickets and clattering leaves. We reached a tall wooden house in the darkness and when the siblings opened the door, light streamed out from a room where an old man in thick glasses and a wispy grey beard sat shucking corn by a stone fire pit in the floor. Next to him was a small round woman wearing big black boots and a red ski cap. They both stood up to embrace their son as he stepped in the door. Two other young men, his brothers, came out from another room, each holding a white goose by the neck. The father smiled at me and shook my hand. The brothers did the same. The boy’s name was Wei Yu and he was twenty-five years old and worked at a furniture store in Shenzhen. Soon he would become a manager. We sat on the ground of the stone kitchen smoking cigarettes and eating oranges. The old man shucked corn silently, rubbing one cleaned husk against the other and filling a woven basket with the kernels, then throwing the husks one after another into a pile at the foot of the stone wall. The old woman laid out wet socks by the fire next to the water kettle and turned them over from time to time until they were crisp and warm. The old man shucked corn for an hour without a word and I wanted to ask him what his thoughts were, but Wei said that his ears were not good and we couldn’t really talk to him. “He is a Christian,” Wei said. “He is always silent.”

When the food was ready, we went into the second room and the old man stood in his socks on two small stools balanced on each other, and reached up to the lamp cord hanging from the ceiling to put in a brighter bulb for eating. The brothers brought in steaming bowls of rice and bowls of chopped goose. We sat around a low wooden table and Wei brought in a soupy bowl of thick red liquid. It was the blood of the geese. He poured it onto the bowls of rice and it dripped in viscous crimson strands. He said it was the traditional dish of his minzu, his ethnicity. At the time, avian flu was prevalent across Asia, and I didn’t want to risk getting sick, so I didn’t try the blood, though it looked delicious poured over the steaming rice. The family was talking in their dialect, which I didn’t understand. I asked Wei what was going on and he told me in Mandarin that they were discussing troubles with family finances. One brother said, “It’s very dirty here and louhou.” “Need money,” said the other, in halting English.

I didn’t know what to say back to them and just nodded. I knew that Wei was like many young men in Shenzhen, working hard in the city and sending money home to help his family. When the meal was over, we went back into the stone kitchen to scrub the dishes and the old man sat again at his chair, shucking corn in the slow repeated rhythm. I could hear the night birds calling from outside in the leafy green hillside and the chickens, wrestling all evening in their small palm frond cages had become silent, escaping into sleep. The old woman brought me up the wooden staircase to a huge loft where small bedrooms were partitioned by wooden planks seven feet high but still not reaching the ceiling. She showed me to a small room with a little wooden bed and warm blankets and a bare light bulb that she turned on and off three times, showing me the switch. “If you ever need a family here, you will have us,” she said, and she wished me goodnight.

The room was cold and I got under the blankets. On a nightstand there was a dusty stack of fashion magazines; on the covers were sports cars and young people with cell phones and fancy shirts. I could still hear the old man shucking corn in the room below and I tried to imagine him waking up, putting on his shirt and sweater and his two coats, pulling on the sweatpants and wool socks and staring off into the chicken yard in his silence. I could never know what it’s like to walk up the creaky steps a thousand times to bed, or to shuck those endless ears of corn in his silent Christian mind. I thought of what affections they must have for the sturdy old hand-built home. Light from downstairs cast thin golden beams on the rafters above me, and I listened to the cats meowing back and forth and slept in soothing darkness.

The next morning, I found Wei standing by the window on the second story, looking out over the jungly green hills. He was having a morning cigarette. “Look out here. It is as beautiful as Xishuangbanna,” he said. He put his arm over my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said. “There is still happiness in the countryside.”

The girl and the other brothers had already gone off to the fields when I woke up. I said goodbye to Wei and his aging parents, got my bike out of the shed where it had been stored for the night, and set off on the road to Baise.

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.