Walkabout

Yangshuo

The town was all cobblestone walks and red lanterns that hung from wooden eaves. But this ancient façade was a restoration and an inevitable turn took me to the city’s main drag down by the docks. Here the neon world began again! The whole street pulsated with rock music thumping from empty bars and young men stood at the entrances and jumped up and down excitedly yelling, “Hello sir! Drink beer! One beer!” Artists lined the streets, painting caricatures of Harry Potter, Tom Cruise, and Osama bin Laden. Gawking foreigners in Gore-Tex zip-off pants wandered amongst the circus lights, picking through t-shirt stands and chased by beggars pulling on their clothes. So be it. I decided to enjoy the din for the evening and looked around for a hostel since this would likely be my last time around foreigners for a while and I was curious about what brought them to such parts. I checked into a standard place and entered a room full of socks and bras hanging on makeshift laundry lines and a stack of guide books and novels by Salman Rushdie. A girl from Liverpool was standing in her towel, but without much ado I went back out to the street.

I sat at a table on the street watching the mix of farmers hauling wheelbarrows of dirt and foreigners having their names painted in Chinese characters. Like most places in China, half the street was covered in scaffolding made of bamboo and construction dust and the sound of buzz saws clattered through the night. I took out the Rimbaud book, which informed me that “alchemists believe that demons and evil spirits haunt all places of putrefaction.” On the street, an albino in a kung fu outfit ambled past and a peddler sidled up to me tweetling a few notes on a reed flute that he wanted me to buy. I asked him to play me something that his mother played to him and he did. If no payment were involved, the feeling would be like a king being waited on. An old lady sidled up next pushing grapes and small sweet bananas towards me; she was followed by children bearing coconuts. In the restaurant, Leonard Cohen sang mournfully from the speakers,

There’s no one who has told us yet
What Boogie Street is for.

At the table across from me, a beautiful dark-haired European girl was writing in her journal. I kept looking over at her but she never met my eyes. I was tempted to toss my pen at her or something; her presence was overwhelming and I wanted to go over to her and take her beautiful face in my hands and kiss her right on the spot. I went into the bathroom, leaving my book and journal on the table. When I came back, she was gone.

I set back to reading, feeling a vague sense of regret for having said nothing to the girl. I watched the bowlegged fruit men and the bandy-eyed jugglers and the waves of foreigners sloshing in and out of howling bars. Within a few pages I found a sheaf of paper tucked into my book. It was a note. “You eat too fast! (wink).” I sprang up and the waitresses who had been watching me were giggling already.

I ran out looking amidst the crowds, peeking into all the bars, all the way down to the river’s edge and back. She was gone.

I went back to the waitresses; they were highly amused and I felt desperate but elated.

“We will watch for her,” they told me. “You will find her again.”

That night I fell asleep in the hostel and dreamed of sad-eyed youth going out on the rooftops all over the world. The roofs were dark and stormy and connected by hanging footbridges and I watched as friends from childhood walked perilously over the precipices. Beneath the city rooftops there was water, sand and rock; above was a black and stormy sky. I stumbled and the bag with all my journals opened up and I watched them all, pages fluttering, as they fell hundreds of feet to the rocks below.

I woke up the next day and went out to check with the waitresses about the dark-haired girl, but there was no sign of her yet, so I took my bicycle and rode out into the countryside.

I rode back through the little white-washed town amidst the rice fields; the buildings all rose three stories up and made a maze of little narrow streets and the air seemed cavernous and cool. Portraits of Mao Zedong and the Taoist gods hung on the doorways, men walking in pairs carried leafy green vegetables slung on bamboo poles and a few children in their uniforms ran home from school. The alleys had mahjong tables where old folks clustered playing the game. It seemed a fine day in China, the old clustered in their traditions as young fathers and mothers brought produce home over their shoulders and the children ran heartily off to school on a market day, beneath the towering limestone peaks of Guangxi.

Back in Yangshuo, I ran into the dark-haired girl right there on the street. Anna was her name, from Poland and traveling alone. We went to get lunch at a place that sold mostly sparrows and dog and talked intensely for four hours over tea. We walked all over the town, down through the docks and out to the villages where we met a man standing there smoking cigarettes in the darkness and I asked him if he could find us a boat to go out on the river that night. I wanted to row it myself but he insisted there be a boatman, so we agreed to meet back there at midnight to go out on the river.

It was the first day of December and the nights in Yangshuo were bitter and cold. Anna and I bought a bottle of baijiu, the infamous Chinese grain alcohol, to help stay warm in the frigid night. Waiting for the boatman, I took her by the waist and we danced and spun on the dock, drinking the foul wine under the mantel of the moon. I brought her close to me and kissed her softly.

“In the restaurant I was watching you and kept wishing you’d just look up at me. I can’t believe you noticed me.”

“That’s what I was writing about all the couples and of course I noticed you! You were reading with your headlamp on and sighing and speaking Chinese. I really wanted to talk to you but I felt too shy to do it. When you went to the bathroom I got up and wrote you that note as quickly as I could. I was afraid you’d come back while I was putting it in your book. I was so nervous that I fell flat on my face on my way back to my table!”

We kissed again and again and lay down on the dock, undressing in the chilly air. I held her hands out and we pressed our bodies together. It was clear by now that the boatman wasn’t coming. “Imagine that we are floating on a boat of reeds and the moon is above us,” I said. “We are carried on the river past these green shadowed crags, to where they all become islands and the fishers are poling on the water, with their birds. The clouds swim over the moon; the mountains are silhouettes and the water is open and wide. There are villages, with houses built on stilts. The fishers hang their lanterns on the bows, and pole along the banks beneath the hanging vines. And we reach a cave and swim in to lie on the banks in the reeds and make love. This is why I’m not afraid to die; because the things that you dream never happen here. We will book our tickets and travel on. Tomorrow, you on your boat ride in the morning and then the train to Kunming. You will go west to see other cities; I will go further south, and we will disappear, once again, into our lives.”

We lay together, our bodies bristling in the cold and I held her, running my hands over her beautiful skin, which shone in the moonlight. She got up and started to get dressed and I lay down listening to the water move against the dock. When I looked up, she was gone.

I pulled my clothes on and went searching through the streets of the town, trailing my red emergency blanket behind me like a cape. The bars were still pounding, and empty, except for the few touts who seemed to have tired of yelling, “Beer, beer!” to the vacant streets.

I found Anna sitting in a doorway, and I sat down beside her and wrapped the emergency blanket around us both. She didn’t explain why she had left me on the dock, though the night was a blur of impulse for both of us by now and I left it at that. She was frazzled, though; she told me that she had walked into a bar where Chinese businessmen were blowing cocaine and they tried to escort her into a room in the back. When they opened the door, naked bodies were flailing about in a coked-up orgy. She wanted nothing to do with it and went back out to the street where I found her. She gave me a long kiss goodnight and went home to rest before her boat ride in the morning.

The town of Yangshuo in the morning was only slightly less sinister than its nights. Stepping out of the hostel I passed a man sliding along the stony ground on boards lashed to his mangled knees; the kung fu-suited albino was out and walked about, bowing to people seated at the restaurants.

Anna and I went and sat by a bridge in one of the town’s small gardens and kissed in almost privacy, aside from a few old ladies who peered at us now and then. She had to leave for her train to Kunming shortly and I walked her to the bus station that would shuttle her to the train. She sat inside the bus and I pressed my lips up to the glass. She did the same and then I got on my bike and rode out into the countryside.

The dirt roads were lined with bundles of wheat and the air was fragrant and hummed with dragonflies. Men in open-collar shirts and wide-brimmed straw hats rode along in tractors laden with ripe green watermelons. I watched a woman walk by towards the town; she carried a heavy load of dark yellow pumpkin flowers which bent her bamboo pole into an arc over her back. The farmer hats were woven of whitish straw and looked like flower faces peering at me, cocked back on their heads as they walked along the roadsides to and fro, from town market to country home. I rode out far along the paddies and glades. Water buffaloes pulled plows along in the fields. I turned up a steep dirt path at a fork in the road and the words Lao Dao—“The Old Way”—were inscribed on a rock, pointing to the direction I had chosen.

Atop the hill, the land evened out and rows of short brick houses sent wisps of grey smoke from their chimneys and into the pale blue sky. Beside them fields and bamboo groves stretched out and on towards the foothills and mountains. Old ragged women were hunched over babies that they carried in bundles around their necks, tending to them while the able-bodied mothers and fathers were out in the fields. It was nearing dusk and the farmers were beginning to come back to their homes.

The moon was out, round and full, and it was time for me to go. I got on my bicycle and rode back down the hillside, away from The Old Way and onto the open road, past families walking home for dinner in the twilight with its few stars shining in the blue night sky. The children carried scythes and the men and women balanced great long stalks of green bamboo over their backs; their buffaloes walked alongside them. Shacks along the outskirts of Yangshuo were lit with firelight and tractors putted along the muddy road. I reached the town again and walked along the docks looking for the empty bottle of baijiu Anna and I had left behind. There was nothing there; it had been absorbed into the surreptitious commerce of the town’s beggars and gatherers. Anna was gone indeed. I got out my unwieldy satellite phone and called a friend from home and heard the value investment dreams of American youth. I called my great Uncle Charlie who said his spirit was flying with me.

Nearing the bus station, I passed a squat old woman carrying a dirt-caked hoe over her shoulder with two rice sacks slung over it on the long handle. She wore the green marching shoes of the People’s Liberation Army that you could find in rural markets across the country sold for less than a dollar. She was grinning toothlessly in the sunlight and I wondered what she made of it all, coming in from the countryside with its quiet starlight and loping buffaloes, to walk amongst this freakish postmodern village of tattoo parlors, Mickey Mouse hats, neon bars named after Tin Tin, cocaine orgies and t-shirts sold to foreigners which read in Chinese, “Go Away, I Don’t Have Any Money!” I watched her pass, and she ambled bowleggedly down the cobblestone path and into the city before her.

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.