The train pulls out from Beijing, and the dread’s ballooning. A sunset on the valley of half-finished apartment blocks, cranes and craters, overnight vertical mansions that may never get lived in. Phones keep shooting off around me like fireworks. Squeezed between two ladies yelling over me. It’s a strange combination of being unmoored–cast adrift–and being completely boxed in.
I made it to my train after they’d already closed the doors to the platform, not realizing how in China, trains are more like planes, where the time written is never the time needed, what with the multitude of security clearances. There’s a good chance they only let me through because I was frazzled and foreign enough for them to take pity on me.
So I sprint on, and as the sweat runs along the fingers I’m trying to check my phone with, I realize I never loaded the directions to the hostel. I’m going to a small walled town directionless, in a country where finding public wifi without a local phone number is damn-near impossible. I’m screwed. With my ten kilo backpack and my non-existent language abilities I’m totally screwed. China’s northland sped by me in a whirl of nuclear power plants, salt-mines, and small brick villages just waiting to be bulldozed. New apartment blocks in the center of valleys. And that dread just kept growing with the yelling filling the whole train car.
And fuck. Is this what all of China’s gonna be like?
The one thing I knew was to take the 108 bus into the city. Naturally, there were two 108 busses waiting at the station parking lot, painted different colors going different places. And right as I begin properly freaking out, a Chinese woman steps on and asks me if everything’s alright. Her name’s Amy and, with her brown duffle she wrapped tightly and her high cheekbones, she wears a benevolent smile like she already knows she’s about to save my life. She starts telling me, as the bus heaves into rolling, that she’s as lost as I am: her crappy IPhone 4’s data cut out right as she was making her reservation. Contrary to her excellent style, she’d been looking at a hostel for the night. Mine.
And now we’ve got a mission. I borrow a Spanish couple’s phone to approximate the location on their maps app, Amy enlists the help of a Chinese girl with a proper phone to get the phone number. By the time we get off the bus, we’ve got two reservations and directions, squeezing on the back of a rickshaw driven by an old man who keeps shaking his head and chuckling when he catches me in his rearview.
We roll past Pingyao’s great walls with the halfmoon hanging over us. His front wheel gets caught in holes, his back two go flying, my heart’s in my throat and I can’t stop laughing. Amy and I are becoming the sort-of best friends that only happens in diverted crises—my hometown, her job (Chinese teacher, go figure), our feelings on Asia, small talk’s suddenly fascinating and endlessly funny.
It’s a dusty black street lit only by a red lantern at the far end. The hostel has a grassy courtyard with two white rabbits. I let out a sigh that blows through me. I knew it; knew China wasn’t all like Beijing. I was already in a place that could be home or, at least, could be in a little way mine in the time it takes me to shuffle through. Amy finds us the last noodle place open, and we share a bowl of Pingyao’s famous vinegar noodles. She’s taught Chinese to all kinds of people filtering through Beijing and now, she decided it was her turn to see the world. There’s a solid chance I’ll never see her again, but that moment we got to share together? That’s enough right?
As the last place in China to maintain the entirety of its walls, Pingyao’s stood the test of time better than anywhere else I’ve been. A thriving merchant town for hundreds of years, it’s all long alleys and lanterns and temples. Scattered across the city are old homes, governmental offices, and even a few banks since, oddly enough, Pinyao’s the first place in China to use them (1823) that you’re able to enter and sniff out.
Since Japan usually only keeps its temples safe and open for viewing, doing away with civic offices, these buildings were absolutely fascinating. You go up the long stone pathway of the magistrate’s courtyard, and there’s a series of raised platforms and a background of the rising sun. Here’s where he sentenced them to death, here’s where he gave them life. The dark stone rooms for prisoners. The instruments of torture, the instruments of execution. Or the much narrower, intimate courtyards families of great men lived in. The lanterns on the balcony, Taoist statues in the hallway. The different rooms for different ranks of family members, extending out towards the street-side where the servants lived. And all the things I’d read, all the books I lived in (that crazy 3000 page one that’s all about sex)—all that started to click in new ways. Without Pingyao’s near-perfect preservation, I’d probably have a much harder time reimaging China in the places that have done much worse jobs maintaining pre-modern things (a.k.a., everywhere else).
But still, at the end of that day-and-a-half, I never liked Pingyao as much as the moment I wasn’t sure I would get there. Strapped to the back of that truck with May, laughing at the moon. Nothing got to me as much as the old driver’s smile when I pulled out my embarrassing, rudimentary Mandarin by way of a thank you.
It makes me realize how much I’ve changed as a traveller since my Europe exchange 3 years ago. When I hounded after monuments and didn’t bother learning a word of Italian, a word of Spanish. When I tried my hardest living in a world that’s no longer there. More and more as I travel in Asia, it’s the now I’m interested in. The beating pulse. Standing on Pingyao’s immaculate walls, I started by trying to imagine this place when there were only woodcarts (and not mopeds) inside the gates and only fields (and not ferris wheels) outside them. Instead I was looking at the girl holding her mickey mouse lollipop, too entranced by its image to actually eat it, or her mother dragging her along, or the guide trying to sell them things. People, now.
This became even truer in Xi’an. As the nation’s capital 200 BC-come-700 AD, there’s few cities in China as crucial to the culture as Xi’an. So many of the things we think of as China-China were first seen here: scroll paintings, grand palaces, glittering Confucian temples. It’s the China ancient Japan wet dreamed about for most of its early development.
Would you guess that, looking at the city today? Good luck even trying to imagine something of those old days. Modern Xi’an may have its walls and central bell tower, but that’s about it in the face of the roads bottlenecked with apartment blocks, the freeways, the radio towers. You’re walking down the main road seeing only Dior, Chanel, KFC, and you’re wondering where you are. All my tirades last post about how little Beijing looks like its old self, and it’s not been massacred anywhere near as bad as Xi’an.
And so it’s pretty surprising that, after three days here, I found myself really liking the place. The residential avenues lined with thick trees, where there’s a sudden random theme park between apartments. Or watching the deadlock of buses in the middle of a (very badly designed) ringroad, how the reckless strut-jawed motorcyclists lace between them.
Or the Muslim Quarter, easily one of the most fascinating, unexpected places I’ve ever been to. Since Xi’an was the final stop on the ancient silk road, it saw a mixing of cultures very different from the east of China. Today, the district is an incredibly dense, loud collection of streets and alleys where live goats are tied to street corners, skinned pigs hang so heavy on poles you wonder it doesn’t bring down the stall—men pounding rice cakes with big wooden hammers, women pushing carts of food and bags down the packed streets’ middle.
The 1200 year old mosque in its center has the green tiles, pavilions, and separated courtyard design of a Chinese temple, but the walls are written in Arabic, and as you wander through—dusty, blue dusk—the cry of “Alaaaah Akbar” follows you. It’s disorienting. It’s enchanting. It’s a modern Xi’an not defined by Parisian luxury brands, a Xi’an with a continuous history.
And I started to realize how much I’d gotten China wrong up till this point. How much I was trusting the stereotypes handed down in second hand accounts by friends: that they’re rude, they’re dirty, they’ll give you dirty stares everywhere you go. That I’d grow to hate it, and end up counting down my days left. It was in Xi’an when I started to realize I was feeling quite differently. I’d built a sort-of wary reserve: in loving the idea of China so deeply but knowing the reality wouldn’t fit the image, I soaked in every negative comment like I was building up my nest for the winter. It’s only here I started realizing that in bracing myself, I was almost trying to hate it.
Going out to Mount Hua that second day there, I started to understand how wrong I’d gotten things. I braced myself for the worst: unreliable buses, crazy crowds. Stressing about a thing that hadn’t happened yet—that didn’t happen. Okay, getting buses from train stations here is always a bit of a dice-roll, but we smiled at enough people till they directed us the right way. We got there, we climbed.
Some 25, 000 steps worth, up a winding mountain path dotted with Taoist shrines. The place is steeped in myth: it’s one of Tao’s five holy mountains, consecrated—they say—when Laozi rode a donkey up. There weren’t many donkeys this time, not near the so-called ‘sky-well,’ a series of steps-turned-ladder-rungs where you have to use a rope to pull yourself up. I reach the first peak, where temples and tea houses hang over the edge with their fingernails, and the highest ridges break into the sky with trees leaning askance. I understand scroll paintings. And, as the world’s most dangerous mountain, I realize this country hasn’t killed adventures or its stories just yet. There’s still so much beauty here, so much to learn from.
The horizon’s a smoky haze, higher ridges I’ll never climb make shadows behind me, as I follow the arc of the eagle. I wrote in my journal then, “What am I doing? Can I be better than this?” I was thinking about all the times I lost my cool these ten days into the trip: teeth-clenching at the train station, flipping off drivers who’d honk me off the road. The dread on that train from Beijing. That’s no way to live right? And here I am on a mountain straight out of my wildest dreams, watching the families laughing and having as good a time as me. I want to be better. I want to get to know them.
Climbing down as the sun closed on the valley, I probably made quite the figure: the sweat stains (or maybe, sweat suit), the flown hair, alone after everyone I climbed up with had the good sense to take the cable car down. They, the passerby’s, always burst out laughing, and I forced myself to realize this was a with-me situation, so I laughed too. Half of them took my picture, some covertly (“oh I’m just taking in this beautiful landscape you happen to center”), some less-so: the old man who, catching sight of me, jumps up, pulls out his flip-phone and runs to the center of the bridge to get me at my best side. By this point I’m doing most of the laughing.
So we’re back to another train station. The lines, both security and ticket gates, are just as long as usual, the staff just as overworked. I wait in a line that turns out to be the wrong one for me (this indicated, of course, only in Chinese) made longer when the ticket lady goes on a coffee break mid-shift. I’m listening to the other people in line get told all the trains they want are already sold out. But Liam, breath; don’t forget to keep breathing. There’s a booth open with no line, while the rest stretch out to the far gates. That can’t be right, can it? I tremble up to it, and after a couple minutes of the lady trying to ascertain what I mean when I say “Chengdu” and not “Chéngdū,” she gives me my ticket.
And I’m ecstatic. A rush of oxygen to the brain, a hop in my step. I look at this noise around me and think “I beat you. You’re nothing now and I beat you.” The elation’s taking over, the culture shock, right about the same time as Japan last year. Both times, that elation—that feeling of free-fall, a “there’s no easy landings and I don’t care”—only came when I stopped listening to people say “this is Japan, this is China.” When I used my eyes, and remembered enjoying myself is actually a thing I’m allowed to do. Just keep breathing.
Find a China on your terms. On theirs.