Phase 2: I’m a Real Person Again
As you might have guessed, after two days of what I’d like to call punishment – for what the crime, I still do not know – from which I felt a moral obligation to have derived some important life lesson (view above, I suppose?), things began to turn around. On my first full day in Yangshuo, the sun was out– brighter and warmer than I could have hoped for – and the ever-present rock that I felt in my stomach, had shrunken to something of a baseball. I was feeling better, albeit only comparatively. I also had spent my early morning reading blogs and thanks to some thigh-thudding, was able to fix my camera. I could practically HARK those beautiful Angels SING Hallelujah! as I took my first photo, from my rooftop, of the sun stretching its ray-arms over the sleeping town of Xingping.
I quickly grabbed a bowl of zhou – congee rice porridge – for breakfast, of which I could only eat a few bites, and got on a bus to the center of town. The streets were lined with bike-rentals, all offering the same deal of 10-20 RMB for day rentals, charming stands with colorful dresses, and saturated, to capacity, with foreigners. I felt almost overwhelmed by how many blonde-haired Caucasians I saw, all grasping at their maps, as they marched along the sidewalk in their Teva sandals. My beautiful baby-blue bike was purchased from a sweet lady with a deformed right hand – she hid it nervously under the length of her blazer sleeve whenever she thought my eyes fell to it. I hadn’t noticed at first, but when (like an asshole), however, I insisted that she put a basket on my bike, I had to watch uncomfortably as she manually tied six individual strings to attach it, with one hand.
Shortly before taking off, I fell prey to the charming flower tiaras that could be found on the heads of almost every female – and many male – tourist. Old ladies spend their days crafting intricately woven crowns of fresh flowers – it only seemed right that I buy a 5 RMB crown of pink roses to christen the start of a wonderful day en seule.
Of the many routes I had considered, I vouched for a pleasant 20 minute bike ride to Moonhill, on a large paved road, reasoning I couldn’t quite stomach the bumpy back dirt roads. Moonhill, reminiscent of the Jefferson Land Bridge in Virginia, is a bridge-like structure that, on this perfect day, arched, like a stone rainbow, against the backdrop of blue, blue skies. Biking solo is a true gift – I moved at my own pace, stopping periodically, if not excessively, to take what I believed, at the time, to be “the perfect picture.” Foolish, Morgane.
I arrived at Moonhill, purchased a 15 RMB entrance ticket, and hiked up to the top. After 45 minutes of steps, boatloads of embarrassing Myspace-style photos of self, and some quality all-consuming self-loathing for deciding to wear spandex under my shorts, the stifling embrace of trees and shrubbery, seeming to insulate all the heat, released its grip, and opened to an expansive view of the city below – I was exhausted, but satisfied as a gust of wind slapped across my flushed cheeks. I laid down on the ground, under the shadow of Moonhill, wrote in my journal to indulge Thoreau’s legacy, and basked in Spring’s arrival.
At the top of Moon Hill, I met a 19 year old Chinese girl, a student in Guangxii, named Xiao Li, when a shriveled old lady, using tired, butchered Chinese and English, tried to sell us both postcards. As I motioned to walk down the mountain, she said, “I will come with you,” and we walked down together – using only Chinese, which I was thrilled about. There was something disarming about her, in that she enjoyed my company, but was perfectly content on her own as well. She, too, had come to Yangshuo alone for the holiday. She had a childish face, though was also exceptionally practiced as the judgmental mug, which she had given me earlier when I had asked her to take a picture for me. Her smile was radiant though, and I first saw it when she whimpered about wearing jeans and a thick sweater in the heat.
I had expected to part ways at the base of the mountain – in fact, my annoying I’m-in-an-Indie-movie-about-self-discovery had actually hoped to get back to listening to tunes as I biked, on my metaphysical “road towards self-awareness,” but it would not be. I had told her that I had wanted to ride a bamboo raft down river and she approached a woman, who expectedly, offered a wildly expensive price; during the fray, I realized that despite having no appetite, I needed to eat. Our bargaining having been unsuccessful, the old woman made our meal her new goal – she insisted that she direct us to a cheaper restaurant, as everything in the area, touristy as it was, was overcharging. Thus, she on her bike, and us on ours too, biked to an isolated street off the main road, to a charming (and empty!) outdoor restaurant. I ate for cheap, and for the 10 minutes that we sat, Xiao Li and I agreed to take a 2 hour bamboo raft ride together, splitting the cost of 150 RMB between the two of us. It was exhilarating, meeting a stranger, with whom I could only speak Chinese, and now committing to an afternoon with her.
5 minutes later, a man arrived, with a 3-wheeled car, to transport Xiao Li, me and our bikes to where we would load onto our raft. The ride itself was enough of a treat. I wonder, sometimes, (phase 1 lesson, hey hey?), whether its ever really worth it to take photos, because as you venture deeper beyond the realm of comfort, what fascinated you previously is suddenly outdone, and immeasurably less than.
The bamboo rafts were exactly what I had dreamt they would be, and I could not have asked for a kinder sky – the rafts, no more than a meter or so wide, had 2 seats haphazardly placed on bundles of bamboo shoots, narrowly flanked by water – I liked that there were no safety measures; I liked that we could sink, and that this was simply a trial and error contraption gone right. Before boarding, I whipped off my spandex and shoes, and we set sail.
Our rafter was a scrawny, cheeky 18 year old, with eroding teeth, and loose-fitting clothes over his scarecrow-figure. We floated down river, slowly, and placidly, as other rafts sidled by us, and we, like members of an exclusive club, exchanged mutual ‘hellos’ to our respective neighbors. It was wonderful.
But we soon discovered that our “playful” rafter, was actually an unruly, obnoxious, annoying adolescent who had not yet realized the parameters of humor. It began when, in the first five minutes of our trip, he splashed us, slapping his bamboo stick against the water. We laughed, and foolishly thought, how lucky we are to have such a fun rafter! Then, he stopped to get a cigarette, and his rowing pace steadily waned, until we were inching at a glacial pace forward. Then, he splashed more water on us – specifically on and at my camera, despite pleas to NOT do that. Then, he stopped a vendor selling beverages and snacks down river, to get a beer – a big bottle. Again, we thought this fine, but with a cigarette in one hand, and a beer in another, the already-rapidly decreasing pace came to a virtual halt. We were polite at first, asking that he go a little faster – especially because I had to be on a bus back to my hostel by 6:30, and we would have to bike 15 minutes from the unloading dock – but, he was unrelenting. He continued to slap us with water, he began splashing water at other rafters in spite of their grimaces and “noo!s,” and began calling out insults at passerbys (“HahahA! (pointing) look at how fat you men are! You men are so fat! Two fat men on a raft!). Then, he pulled over at a floating photo center, without word, got off our raft, and sat down with a handful of peanuts, as we tried to entice anyone else to take his place. When the time came that he accidentally dropped his rowing stick, and we watched it float away, finally resorting to using the large sun-umbrella as oar, and retriever, we realized that he was drunk. We began to outwardly apologize to neighboring rafts, embarrassed by what had begun to feel like our rude younger brother – or maybe, that blackout fraternity guy that you “mistakenly” forget to bring to dinner.
In spite of him, the journey was still fantastic. Everyone alongside us was a tourist in some way or another, and relaxed, as choruses broke out between rafters, and passengers, along the sparkling river. There were about ten “waterfall” drop offs, where photographers were perched at the ready, to capture our reactions to the front of the raft being completely submerged, and the wash of cool water rushing over our sun-beaten feet. 3 hours later – an additional hour having been tacked onto our trip – we docked. A camel, two monkeys in costumes, and a white horse with blue and red pom poms stood motionless on display – like an unsettling dystopian carnival. Oh, terrible China. I biked back feeling like light– a generalized, nameless burden lifted.
That night, I feasted on pizza again, this time enjoying every bite. For my last morning solo, I got the notion that I would hike the mountain outside of my hostel, at 5 AM, in the dark (for those you who know me, I am terrified of the dark), to see the sunrise.
That morning, I was somewhat disheartened that my alarm had woken me. I was dreading this hike. It was 5:07, I remember, and the adrenaline pumping through me, provoked by the mere thought of climbing up a mountain in the pitch dark, had quelled any hope of me justifying going back to sleep because I was “tired.” I was so far from it. I was nervous, and excited – in the same way, moments before taking an incredibly important exam, you get energized, imagining the weightlessness that will come when you are done. The silence in my room was such that I began to hear drumming in my hears, and high pitches of white-noise, as I wavered between to go and not to go. And then I remembered a line from a C.S. Lewis book that I had happened to read, and write down, minutes before leaving for Yangshuo – something that I am chalking up to something more powerful than coincidence:
Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, til it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.
I had to go. So, out the door I marched, into the black night. I dilly-dallied, no doubt, but I tripped up some stairs in the direction of up. I cannot stress just how dark it was, and multiple times I stumbled into paths that ended with – cliff. I walked for about 15 minutes alone, admittedly very scared, when I saw a man approaching. I quickly said, “do you know how to go up this mountain?” in Chinese – and I was happily surprised to hear him say that he was going to see the sunrise too. We climbed together, as the simple steps became treacherously steep. We moved at a rapid pace, me always in front with my flashlight, I think partially for fear of missing the sunrise, but more, because the hypochondriac in me had also convinced me that yes, this man was a murderer, posing as a backpacker, who would kill me. (Surrrreeee, your wife and daughter are sleeping at your hotel…)
We came to terrifyingly tall ladder, and by 6:15 AM, we reached the top, where a man and his wife, and their son, sat, exasperated. They had been here since 5:30, and were quite certain that the clouds settled in the darkened sky, would block any sunrise we had all trekked to see. Nevertheless, I was glad I had come, and the sickness having worn off, I felt like a real person again, finally.
The world below seemed so small, and so distinctly far away. Atop this cliff, there was only the present, and the pure, unmitigated sense of pride that flowed through me. There’s something very special about pushing yourself, physically, and ever so ignorantly, contorting the prevailing sense of glory and accomplishment to suit your metaphysical shortcomings, and vulnerabilities. Here I stood, having pushed my Sisyphean stone to the top of the mountain, nodding my hat to my (sheepishly long overdue) fear of the dark, high-fiving my fear of being alone, and shouting a “what’s good?” to my slovenly habits of wasting days in bed, watching television, as I worked my way beyond them. As unimportant as it may seem to you, dear reader, I felt I had come a long way, as if this were a real moment of departure from who I was in Zhangjiajie only two days earlier, and even further, from who I had been in New York, two months prior.
While I felt very alone standing at this peak, I did not feel lonely. This was my moment of Friedrich’s “The Wanderer” – the Romantic painting, where a man about whom we know nothing, stands upon a rock, staring out onto a mysterious landscape, obscured by clouds and fog, but never without a faint hope that lingers in the distance of clear, blue, and pink skies. (Ref: http://www.dennisdanvers.com/pictures/Caspar_David_Friedrich_032.jpg)
I checked out that morning, after the most satisfying of Western-style breakfasts: banana crepe, and two eggs – and went to meet friends downtown.