Back on the road, I stopped eventually to set up a clothesline along the trees with a piece of rope that Amira had given me and I let my clothes dry in the sun and read more Rimbaud as the trucks howled by.
I wanted so much to have Rimbaud’s severance from the world; to truly walk the earth with the nakedness of a single satchel or a belted sword. Where the Shepherds die because of the world.
This was a world I did not yet feel that I could die in. I hadn’t seen death before, only uncovered coffins with the faces chalky and the hands folded across the chest and their eyes always closed. I knew that all over the hills, in the smoky villages, they knew about death—what it smelled like and how you would keep it in your house with you like a guest while you prepared everything for the funeral. I wondered if they wondered where they would go.
I stopped at a small general store where a woman and her child sat watching television on a mattress on the floor. There was no room anywhere in the shack. She pointed across the street in the darkness to a concrete house with its lights shining and told me they could help. I went across the street and inside two men and a woman were sitting at a small metal table, having dinner. I told them I was riding my bicycle to Laos and only needed somewhere to put my sleeping bag down for the night. They said that I could stay with them.
In the house there was a very small pink canopy bed with worn out pillows and blankets. There were a few golden calendars, a beat-up bicycle, a rice pot and slippers. The two men wore sweaters and their dark black hair was cropped short with bangs.
They poured food into my bowl though I’d just eaten and I tried to shovel it all in to the woman’s soothing soft command to “chi chi chi, eat eat eat.”
The men smoked and drank baijiu and occasionally stepped outside under the rolling barrier to the storefront to spit. They talked about thievery, corruption, money, bosses in the countryside, how much it cost to rent a truck in different places and the overwhelming deposits involved. On the television there was a movie about the Long March, but the woman changed the channel to a soap opera where a young man and girl (wearing a Hugs Not Drugs t-shirt) sat on a factory swing set, their breath puffing in cold wisps. There was a tiny kitten in the room purring loudly, wearing a knit sweater. The woman told the two men to please not get drunk and laughed a worried laugh. The older man told the younger with the moustache that he would help him buy a car. It was a promise, and they shook on it with warm determination.
Trucks and motorcycles cut through the darkness, making a tunnel of light in the white trunked trees. Mosquitos hovered and the cat crawled over our shoes.
It was decided that I would stay in the moustached man’s abode. He was the caretaker of an odd Buddhist theme park where I’d considered staying the night before asking at the tea shack of the woman and child. It would have been good to sleep at the feet of a huge golden Siddhartha that I’d found in a rocky grotto, but one of the statues near him had been stolen and his alter was cluttered with crumpled beer cans and cigarette butts. It was Friday night and I knew to expect a party of drunken, roaming youth.
We walked through the moonlit park, the frozen Shivas and giant hydra-headed gods just forms in the darkness, lit by his flashlight with an eerie yellow glow. We were tired and didn’t talk much. He was a small, spindly man and really reminded me of a young Hitler, though he was certainly kind. I didn’t even know his name and after the long, quiet dinner, it felt too late to ask. We turned down a dirt path and two large dogs jumped suddenly at me, snarling on their chains. I was spooked but the moustache told me not to worry; they were good dogs.
It was a small dirt shack with a concrete floor and cobwebs hanging like Spanish moss. Inside were four more dogs, tied on their chains.
Dostoevsky wondered if eternity was just a dark bathhouse with spider webs.
This was that bathhouse, plus dogs.
Moustache had a little bed draped with mosquito netting. In an adjacent room, through a chicken wire door, hay and sacks of grain lay on the floor next to an old green dresser covered in faded posters of sailboats and Chinese movie stars in white collared shirts. The floor was covered in empty bottles and cigarette butts. He swept out a spot for me to put down my sleeping bag. Some fallen red banners hung from the walls, “Welcome to the Buddhist Park,” they said.
Insects crawled all over the floor; ants and beetles walking over me in my sleeping bag. In the corner of the grain room, I heard the scurrying of rats while the marble eyed dogs pulled on their chains and barked out into nothing through the night.
I got up as soon as it was morning. In the dim light I could see that the man’s bed was just a piece of cardboard behind the mosquito netting. I said goodbye to my host and continued south on the road to Laos.
Soon the road became mountainous again and I had to walk the bike up the steepest hills. Every kilometer was marked with a white rock like a headstone and I counted them off, impatient with the endless hills. As I approached one of the biggest ones, I waved to a flatbed truck and it pulled to the side of the road.
“China is no fun,” the driver said. “Now the tourists can go to Thailand by road.”
The truck chugged up the hillsides and the gearbox coughed and growled. The driver popped the clutch and we rose up the hillside over the tea fields. Alongside us, peasants of all ages were chopping all the branches off the trees with axes and saws. The trees looked like skeletons and the brightly dressed peasants panted in the hot afternoon.
This was not government work. They were taking every scrap of available material from the land, down to the last of these pathetic looking trunks. Minutes later, we passed a giant billboard that showed exactly these same people in the same colorful garb; on the billboard they were fighting with clubs and spears and dancing around fires in front of caves. A dozen big tour buses sat in a parking lot outside a compound. It was a “minority people” rodeo show and the buses had emptied out their crowds of gaping Han Chinese.
We drove along the winding hills and I complimented the driver on his truck.
“My danwei (work unit),” he said, “has two American-made trucks. They’ve got much better engines, coolant, air conditioning, everything! This is not a good truck at all.”
It popped and rumbled in accord.
“America is so free! Here the laobaixing are not satisfied.”
This was the first time I’d heard laobaixing in China; it meant “old hundred names”; the common people.
“We want higher salaries, bigger houses, not such simple food. The roads are no good. And the government won’t let anyone leave China.”
I asked him about the poet Li Bo and pointed out a little chicken shack in the hills. He erupted again:
“Yes, Li Bo was exceptionally satisfied! But he had a free life. If he had no money he could wander where he pleased. That was a few hundred years ago. What do we have to do with Li Bo now?”
I asked him about Laos.
“I’ve been there,” he said. “It is no fun. The economy is trashed and so is the government.”
“What about Beijing?”
“Yes, I’ve been there too. People see a nation’s capital and everything looks fine, but you have to know the laobaixing. Down here the people are not satisfied. In Kunming I have an apartment with my two parents. Jianshu for the railway. You think we are all happy? Living together like that?”
Around dusk we pulled into Mengla, mystery town, and the last sizable place on the road to Laos. It could have been a carbon copy of He Chi and by now the great sameness of Chinese urban planning had really set in.
There was festivity in every Chinese town either to disguise the bang of the jackhammers and builders or because of them. The street was lined with storefronts, little shoe-box boutiques where cheap clothing hung down, and joyous looking couples rifled through the aisles of shirts and dresses and pants. The apparent happiness of these little cities seemed unassailable. Young people walked in and out of Chinese franchises like September Wolves; the whole street seemed a cheap imitation of things in America that I would never want to see again, but to the Chinese it was marvelous.
A parade of Volkswagen Santanas cruised around the town; plastic flowers and the character for double happiness hung from the windows. Men in a pickup truck banged drums and blew horns and snaggle-toothed old women stared wildly out of the windows of the cars. It was a wedding parade and as I explored the town, it passed me four times. I went past the massage parlors with their pink lights and knitting girls sitting beneath posters of Western men and women tearing each others’ clothes off in their passion. I’d been told there was a youth hostel in town and set out to find it. Instead I found a young man standing on a street corner and asked him if he knew of the place.
“Yes, I know it,” he said. “They destroyed it.”
“Why did they destroy it?” I asked.
“It was old.”
Near the river, little cooking fires gleamed orange in the darkness. Women in red Dai head wraps and long green dresses worked over cooking grills, roasting skewers of tripe, tofu, liver, chicken hearts, beef, potatoes, whole fish, snails, and chicken feet. I sat down at a little table alongside a dozen other people who were slurping their food. In the darkness it looked like a war-torn city with its fires and shadows and smoke. Girls walked by in high, faux-fur boots, smoking cigarettes. Boys in leather jackets held their hands. The skewer woman was stone faced and had beautiful long braids of hair that hung down her back and touched the ground. She sat on a stool, counting change and laid it out on a greasy plastic table beneath a bare light bulb. Rats crept through the alleys by the river and dim palms billowed in the wind and smoke. Children ran precariously in between the motorcycles, carrying sharp sticks. Tea kettles hissed on the cooking fires. Restless girls held onto their bills and shifted their weight from leg to leg, waiting for their food.
I ate and went again through the night. Along the river, flashing karaoke bars rang with screechy voices. I looked in and the bars were full of men. Empty green bottles of Qingdao covered the tables. A Christmas tree sat in the corner, flickering with lights. On the walls were posters of Brittany Spears. Electric guitars wailed and straining voices broke into shrieks. On the streets, couples carried shopping bags and men lounged on their motorcycles. Nothing felt right to me in the Chinese city nights. In the town square old couples were dancing to Peking opera. I rode along the same clothing stores and now each of them was blasting Chinese pop music with speakers turned to the streets and store lights gleaming as though each one could be a deafening little dancehall despite its bright shining lights. I went into an internet bunker where kids were playing Dance Dance Revolution, amidst Cokes, beers and cigarettes. I watched the bullets pinging off the walls on their screens and thudding into each others’ digital bodies. Fantasy wanderers trekked over verdant hillsides and the children with their headphones on stared and stared.
I went back to a three-dollar hotel I’d found earlier and checked in. The room was pleasantly run down. It had a desk with broken drawers and purple flower print curtains on the window to the street. Hotels were always moments of weakness for me; it meant retreat. The night would be over and no further life would be gathered from it. I would not sleep in a place sighing with other breaths of sleep and I would have only solitude, which sometimes is the sweetest thing of all, and the hardest to be had. It was good to sit in one’s underwear under a battered twirling fan and read poems. But I knew each time I chose one, that there would be nothing much to say about the night. It was a case closed. I paid for shelter more often than I wanted to, I thought. Across the street a shoe store blasted the chorus of a single pop song on repeat and it played and played through the windows that I shut against it before I drifted off to sleep.
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.