Diaries from a week of village walking in southwest China, before moving onwards to the Laotian border.
Village for the night; stilt house, thatched roof—inside the TV is on. American entertainment salary countdown. Tom Hanks $29 million; Chinese subtitles. Extreme sports rafting and bungee jumping at Victoria Falls. Wood planks with straw mat room spacious and dark; a guitar with old strings. Posters of Chinese pop stars, sacks of rice and roaring cooking fire. On the porch, playing cards strewn under bamboo planks, shirts and pants hanging on the line. Eight feet below, chickens and black pigs we saw in the roadside bamboo groves are running in the yard. I can see the smokefires of houses in the valley below and behind the clouds the sunburst light rays shining down on the forested hilltops. Out here the women are washing vegetables in basins made of old tires, turned inside out and patched for the hole. The father offers us wine in an old plastic bottle, pouring into a small blue shot glass.
As I cross through the wide dirt roads of the village I pass pigs in the pool hall, children lying on the pool table, rolling plastic cars along the felt, dogs sleeping in the dirt, boys on motorcycles with water carrying girls, families sitting on rooftop porches preparing dinner. I hear the televisions coming on in the houses for the evening. The father shaves with a small plastic mirror. He tells me he cannot read or write; neither could the man who pointed us on the road out of town when I showed him the map. Two rides down the dirt tracks; the first in a carrot tractor full of gold toothed ladies in their red and green shawls going home from the market with vegetables and meat. A silent smiling man and his son who is carrying a small bag of plastic soldiers and tanks. Walking more through sun-cracked dirt fields where cows and water buffalo pick through clumps of dried grass as their master sits under the shade of a bare tree. Past the hillside villages where the drunk guy in a fedora who looked like Uncle Dave wanted us to eat; a group of drunken boys parading down the streets singing and inviting us to go on their motorcycles to Lamomou.
A truck coming up the road with women and baskets and fertilizer in the back takes us to this hilltop town where pyramid houses climb over the hills. Invited to stay on the concrete floor of the poolhall where the town Lampwick struts about in a sleeveless shirt, sinking balls and intimidating his crowd of younger boys. I stay on the porch for sunset looking out at the deep valley full of houses. A plastic bottle with the top cut off dangles from the roof holding twelve toothbrushes. The boys tell me that they walk down the hillside everyday and then two kilometers to school. The father dumps fatty pork, vegetables, and spices into the small black pot over the fire pit; there is sand in the cooking room of the house. He tells me that his work is harvesting the tea leaves. One child flicks a lighter idly; the other stares off towards the television at a soccer match in French. The wife brings dried bamboo inside to stoke the fire. A small black dog runs in and out between our legs.
Tonight there is a wedding party in the village. In the wedding party house a sad dog drags its udder, running in between the dancing legs over the thumping wooden plank board floor. She licks the cleaver on the tree stump cutting board and then the cake bowl. Firecrackers rattle and boom outside on the porch. The whole village is coming and old women sit around the fire and a karaoke machine spits and pops with loud echoes. Little tables covered in banana leaves for cloth. Bowls of rice with pork and small wrapped candies twisted at the ends. The men sit at their tables drinking; serpent and dragon tattoos on their arms. The women sit together at other tables laughing and shoveling rice. Tonight is Christmas Eve. I walk back drunkenly in the starlight. The house is quiet and Back to the Future plays on the television set. The boys lie on their mats watching. The kitchen fire is still going, burning low. My companions are in their sleeping bags, sound asleep. I can still hear the raucous dancing of the party a few houses away. The firecrackers crumble in the sky and I fall asleep to the sounds of wailing Peking Opera and shouts of laughter over the karaoke machine.
Morning. Ganzi tea bushes on the hillsides. Dogs and fences; a tractor full of children. The general store has toothbrushes, a few pairs of green army shoes, eggs in bottles, matches, cards, flashlights, a shovel, razor blades, beer, pens, instant noodles, cigarettes, chewing gum, toilet paper, biscuits, lunch meat in tins, towels, batteries, and cooking pots. The little girl draws a long-legged woman in a pink dress and says she wants to become a painter. Her father says this place is too lei, too tired, and such things are only dreams. “You will only cry,” he says to her, and moves his finger down his cheek. The daughter has a glow-in-the-dark crucifix she found. It is the first sign of Christmas Day. None of her schoolmates know what it is, she says. I ask her more. She tells me she heard that if you have dark thoughts you must pray to him.
The father is a CCP cadre representing three village cadres; we look at photos of him with his army group. He says he is worried about his two-year-old son. He doesn’t walk yet or talk. Ten minutes before I had watched him cough up greens from lunch, which hung on his chin. Out in the garden, the girls are twisting pink flowers off the high branches with a long bamboo stick, broken at the end; they put twigs in to widen the cleft. They put the flowers in their small unspeaking brother’s belt and in their hair. The good school is up the hill and we’re tired from climbing. We walk out of town past the inferior school with its red Chinese flag where children run in the concrete yard playing on the seesaw. Past the buffalo herds and roadblasters. A ride with the sugarcane bandits and then on the brick truck talking to my companions about time.
To the monastery on the hilltop. Children are rolling bricks down the hill at the builders who are putting up the tall wooden frame of a house. The children roll down the dirt hill roads on little carts with wooden wheels. A boy holds fake wooden binoculars up to his eyes and surveys the town in the twilight, standing on a ridge of dirt. The farmers are walking home with their sickles and the adults down by the road load logs onto a truck. On the wooden balconies, women prepare meals and we walk up to the bulldozer path to the temple where orange robed monks in ski caps are waving to us. Inside the monastery, they sit around a firepit; twelve of them, sitting there smoking cigarettes, leaning on each other and stoking the coals with long poles of bamboo. I ask them a few things and one of them speaks as the others rest on each other’s shoulders and stare at me, constant and curious. He says that here, unlike Tibet, you can become a monk and freely quit. He says everyone but the master is between seventeen and nineteen years old. Their parents are glad that they are here in the monastery since they will study well and not get into trouble. In the nearest school, there are not enough teachers, so they can only go to school two or three days per week. I ask the leader what he’s thinking about right now. He says, “So many things.” He asks where I’ve been to and where I want to go and I tell him and ask him back. The old man has been to Thailand, Laos, Burma, Cambodia, and Malaysia. All the boys look at him when he speaks. Outside I hear a radio, it is tinny and quiet and I run outside. “Oh holy night! The stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.” An old man with a beard rocks in his shack by the radio. “Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!” The stars gleam above the wooden houses and the pigs snort at the ground. I think of the silent old Christian in Guangxi and the girl in Yanghsuo who would save her village from sin. “O night when Christ was Born.”
We go to a stilt house where we will sleep. Dinner of pork fat and rice. The children are honking the motorcycle horn late into the night beneath the house and a woman runs out to chase them off. Men walk through the black dirt paths between the houses with their pipes. Pigs and dogs root in the dark. I meet two smoking Lampwicks on a path and they tell me they’re going to the poolhall. They have business.
The Tibetan songs from the monastery come over the speakers at 5:30 am. I go outside to piss. It is still dark but the morning rooster is crowing, standing on the swinging gate to the house. The dogs were howling all night long. I get up with the sunrise and at the next house twelve women and boys are sitting on the roof, putting shingles on and singing loudly. There are three new house frames being built in the town. We go up to the monastery past little groups clearing dirt paths and standing with their hoes on ashes and fire pits. Inside the temple is full of hanging cloth, red and yellow and gold like the ribcage of some silken whale. Cans of Red Bull are filled with burning oil and beside them sit dozens of carved wooden Buddhas with painted gold faces awkwardly carved. The statues have red lips and dark eyes and somber gazes. A solitary monk is crouched in his robes by the alter, an unmoving shapeless form covered from head to foot. I walk outside where a fat monk sits using a chest of drawers as a surface to copy out scriptures and listening to music on his cell phone. “I don’t know why I am here,” he says. “My parents made me come.” I see that his feet are deformed, of the two green hightops he wears one is completely backwards, the other jutting off to the side.
Buddhist ceremony carrying chair to the temple, colored paper: pink, yellow, green and white. Dangling apples, candies, money, cigarettes, oranges, school notebooks. Men in army surplus jackets dance around the bamboo chair pounding hand drums. Playing cards and bottles of rice wine are strewn all over the gambling pit from last night and into the road. The chair with its oranges and paper feathers gets caught on a power line. They unhook it and continue the dirt drum march up the hill to the temple. A short fellow, robust with caked black hair and his chest thrown out in a rough collar work shirt makes an announcement and a young man in a leather jacket walks around with a collection plate, which he taps like a gong. Everyone is barefoot on the red felt floor. Grain is strewn around. The men sit closest to the altar, smoking pipes. The women are in the back, cradling children and holding candles. Ten monks sit off to the side on a raised platform, formless in their robes and spectacles with thick brown rims. The sheaths thatched of grass that the farmers strap to their backs to hold their tea scythes now hold dozens of candles.
Three men in the center begin to count the money, separating it into stacks. The money is to buy more carpet for the temple. Children break free, carrying candles and howling delightedly. The men pass cigarettes and sip tea from fruit jars. Everyone has tattooed hands. Silver bowl with bitter medicine wrapped in little squares of someone’s Mandarin homework. The monks beat a big black gong painted with gold suns and moons. The whole place feels more like a town meeting than a religious ceremony and the shrieking babies and chattering women drown out the monks who chant softly in a rumpled row by the gongs.
Fireworks pop on the steps outside and a little boy runs inside plugging his ears. Old men blow conch shells and the monks bang the gongs. Younger monks walk through the crowd of sitting people with a silver bowl and sprinkle water on us with flicks of a jungle leaf. Men roll cigarettes with torn pieces of newspaper. People sip cups of tea and keep their kettles close beside them on the floor. Paper skeletons hang from the ornamented rafters. A little child with matted black hair and black hands and feet slides along the ground in her dress. Men light and relight their pipes. The monks start to light up their cigarettes. The people pass a tray of grape lollipops and a girl goes around filling tea cups. They give me a candle for haoying and pingan. Good bravery and safety. Burnt out candle stubs are stuffed into little dirt pits between the floorboards in the carpet gaps. The ten monks silently chew lollipops. The ceremony is over.
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.