Petals and Moons
A frothing Chinese hell pot bubbled malevolently in the centre of the table, encircled by skewers of vegetable and meat pointing outwards like bike spokes towards six empty chairs, waiting for us to sit down. The air was thick with acrid steam and exhaled beer and cigarettes. We, six white girls, wordlessly followed the hostess in her grubby apron across an oily, white-tiled restaurant at lunchtime on a weekday and sat down at the indicated table, front and centre, in full view of the street.
We were in Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province, about to try the famed local specialty, the Sichuan Hotpot. The people around us seemed unsure, raising their eyebrows and smiling discreetly, but we sat down, brazen, and tried not to look too nervous. Peanut lassis arrived at our elbows, and it became muddily clear that the skewers were to be held in the broth until cooked, after which we were to keep breathing through the capsicum rush and to self-medicate with the lassis on hand. Morbid thrill rose in my gut as I picked up my napkin, watching greasy bubbles of chilli oil rise from the deep and burst, thick with mushrooms and spring onions—not waving but drowning—surrounded by a room full of sweaty businessmen, the wet backs of their shirts a testimony to the Hotpot’s heat. The six of us took a collective deep breath and delved in. Our first mouthfuls were a piquant mix of intense heat, façade maintenance, and fear.
Two or three of our group of six wiped their stunned mouths immediately, dropped their napkins to the table with a long exhale and a hell, no before ordering something else. One spent the whole next day writhing around in our cheap hostel, hands on belly, cursing that one mouthful of boiling oil bypassed all ideas of enjoyment and burnt a hole directly in her gut.
Chinese toilets never have toilet paper on hand, FYI.
I, however, felt only a vague sense of alarm that mellowed into a transcendent numbness.
Adrenaline had a part to play in that, sure, and a sense of having looked the Hotpot in the eye and come out swinging, but in addition to this, it was actually really tasty. Sweat beaded and pride radiated from our faces, our camaraderie, mid-Hotpot, fierce. We were running the Chinese gauntlet—nay, winning a timeless cultural contest—whilst sweaty men did business deals around us, shaking with a slurp of hands, and waitresses mopped condensation and oil off the slick linoleum floor.
After a few minutes, our skeptical fellow diners turned and left us to overheat in the relative privacy of a full street vista: as a side note, there is no blending in as a foreigner in Central China, particularly if you look like blood might at any moment start streaming out of your eyes.
The Hotpot eventually conquered, we left the restaurant shaking, swaggering, hysterical with adrenaline and jittery to the point of jumping at traffic noise; apparently, some even hallucinate.
Everyone looked at us as they passed us on the pavement. The only thing to do was to beam back.
Chengdu was my favourite of the Chinese cities: it possessed a certain gentility and liveability, as well as a great sense of humour, of which the Hotpot is emblematic. The sight of vast fields of women doing Tai Chi in a city centre park, paper fans all in unison, made me flush with pleasure, and the alleys of glowing lanterns strung about the food markets were like standing beneath a suspended, glowing network of illuminated petals and moons. The golden orb lights of the old town threw hazy sunshine over racks of fried insects and octopi, and the Chinese opera we saw there was a riot of neon clothing, shadows, contorted voices, and masks.
The world’s biggest stone Buddha sits a two hour drive away at Leshan, carved out of a cliff face over two hundred feet high. A small tree grows out of one ear and its toenail is big enough to quite comfortably fit an incredulous, stretched-out person.
I felt a surprisingly physical urge to climb down the rock face and sit amongst the flora and fauna growing gracefully out of the enormous Buddha’s ear, and judging by the numbers gathered around that point of the railing, I’d guess I wasn’t the only one. But how often do you see a tree emerging from a perfect ear, big enough to provide an aerial canopy for one intrepid person? For all the ear-intrigue, though, it was epically peaceful. It didn’t surprise me at all to hear that the Leshan Buddha has sat, looking out on the water, for over a thousand years.
We’d travelled to the ancient, overcast city of Chengdu on an epic forty-hour train ride, which cut sharply west from coastal Shanghai; you could go twice the distance before you reached Tibet and three times it before you reached India and Nepal. It was fascinating to see the sheer scale of China from the train window: the endless spaces between cities, the vast stretches of gray rocky plateaus, and water-soaked rice fields, where no one could be seen but the shadow of the ghosts who’d lived and died there for thousands upon thousands of years. Hours passed on that journey without a station stop, or a collection of ramshackle houses bigger than a hamlet. Patience is a good characteristic to possess in a country of this size, it seems, as it as healthy supply of Twinkies, bought for their sealed packaging, from a Shanghai Carrefour the size of a reasonable village before boarding the train.
The group of six of us spent these long, train-bound hours sitting on narrow bunk beds, stacked three high with two sets facing inward in narrow inlets from a train-long alleyway, playing cards and increasing boring games of I-Spy as the landscape became more uniform and nothing changed in the carriage. Hydration was kept to a bare minimum to avoid dreaded bathroom trips, which consisted of squatting over an open hole over the train tracks whilst hanging onto a knee-height bar with one hand and trying to manoeuvre your ablutions with the other. You remember what I told you about the toilet roll, right? Grim.
Toilet trips excepted, though, it was not an unpleasant journey.
Passengers kept themselves to themselves, conscious of their privacy in such close quarters: the people who would certainly acknowledge us elsewhere in China ignored us completely, and we ignored a group of American students in turn. Time was punctuated by a food trolley’s movements, passing with steaming vats of noodles, Hotpot and tea, and lights out, after which I lay with my face barely a foot from the curved roof of the train, my money belt and passport strapped beneath my fleece tracksuit—prudently bought in Uniqlo before setting out —within my sleeping bag, reading by mini reading light until the carriage fell silent and the train’s movement rocked me to sleep.
A favourite moment of the journey came when a little boy on a nearby bunk started making loud motorbike noises to his mother when the train ran close to a road; buoyed by our laughter, he held up individual Chinese character cards to us like his teacher, making the appropriate tonal sound. Our role in this was to repeat the sound to the best of our very limited ability whilst he giggled irrepressibly and pointed out how stupid we were to his embarrassed mother. Incidentally, there’s little like the good-natured shame that comes from a pre-school child mocking you for not being able to make the simplest sounds in their language. He then drank too much orange juice and vomited on my friend’s bed, on which she had to then sit for the remaining fifteen or twenty hours.
Not everything was quite so amusing, though: there were signs of real deprivation around us.
Dirty, large-eyed children slept too heavily under piles of clothes on bunk beds whilst adults fell off the train in the middle of nowhere, already bowed under the weight of their destination, carrying plastic laundry bags full of transportable belongings and fabric to launder or sell. Gray, worn-out men sipped from deep cans of alcohol looking out of the same window for all the hours they were awake, and tiny, bent-over old women moved around slowly, their frail bones seemingly crushed by the layers of shawls and padding needed to keep out the damp cold. A woman defecated on a station platform, forever giving mud a new meaning. Reading Oliver Twist up on my bunk bed seemed appropriate; the chick lit that followed did not.
At Chengdu, the passengers all dispersed, the proximity, which made us companionable with each other, not even worthy of a brief goodbye.
Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors felt unfortunately anodyne after the train and the Hotpot, and more like an elaborate set piece that had been laid out to distract tourists and academics whilst everyone got on with living their lives elsewhere. The original find would have undoubtedly been breathtaking, and they might have remained so had they stood amongst the natural environment, but for me the sterile, air-controlled hangar stole the wind from their sails, like ferocious creatures preserved forever in bell jars of formaldehyde. The sheer number was mind-boggling, though, and oddly reminiscent of Saruman’s orc armies in the film version of The Lord of the Rings.
Other memories of Xi’an consist largely of epic waterfalls, mountains, and cheap, knock-off DVDs. It seems quite quaint now, a few years on, that stalls of cheap DVDs could send us into such a frenzy, but we were poor students at the time, so, frankly, they did. It was an orgy of low-priced greed: complete television series were around 70p, individual films closer to 40p. I think I left the country with about fifty separate discs, which caused the Customs official to open my bag, whilst I mutely sweated, and then shake his head wearily and send me on my way.
I had come to China from Japan, and returned there from Beijing to complete another term of study, so those DVDs meant an embarrassingly palpable amount to my television-less and internet-less existence in my tiny Kyoto flat.
Naturally, there were a few duds—The Wedding Crashers, for instance, began with ten minutes of English and then showed me the rest of the film in French, and my copy of Forgetting Sarah Marshall was interspersed by scenes in Russian—but, for the main part, they worked as promised. Once I’d watched them a number of times, and done various swaps with friends, I moved onto endless series of Poirot rented from my neighbourhood video store, so I guess what I’m trying to explain is that I had my own reasons for raising revenue for organised crime in such a gluttonous fashion, and like all good tourists, we told ourselves that we were “helping their economy,” which was ridiculous considering that the Chinese economy was already at the stage of needing no help from us. I still see that headshake when I look at the discs on my shelves, but also think how the blind urge towards indiscriminate, unethical buying might perhaps have said more about China than me. Not that I realised this at the time, of course.
Unusual transport started to characterise our sojourn around China: we’d arrived in Xi’an after spending several nights on a ferry travelling up the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River, no less. The Yangtze is the longest river in Asia, running down to Shanghai all the way from the glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, effectively dividing the country into North and South, like a gargantuan example of the Thames. The best photograph I have from the entire trip is a red and yellow Chinese flag unfurling majestically off the boat deck over a slow-moving river of translucent turquoise, flanked on both sides by bleak cliffs, sides heavy with rough shrubbery and rain. The Yangtze River water is largely opaque, and moving the boat through it felt like slicing through an unhealthy suspension that had been grossly overfilled with minerals, fish skeletons, and the run-off of industry almost too big to control. In the narrowest gorges, standing on the deck was a quiet, slightly otherworldly experience: the sheer rock tributaries were sparsely set with plants hanging from the walls, and men in small bamboo crafts paddled their way up and down and around us, with stacked agricultural produce or various familial passengers travelling at their leisure. The water glowed like quartz in the darkened narrow valleys.
In the wider parts, we passed drizzling, beautiful views of dark shores with lonely clusters of houses, and jagged mountains looked forbidding and bleak against an almost invariably cloudy sky.
After the views had passed, we would duck back into the covered sections of the ship, a good-natured sardine can, full to the metal brim with shouting, cigarette smoke, and the sloshing sounds of the canteen at the end of the corridor, the only place to eat on board. We could only point at the menu affixed to the wall, our Japan-based kanji (Chinese character) knowledge allowing us to guess at the rudiments of a dish, such as “fish” or “sheep,” but thereafter we just hoped for the best. There’s a slightly illicit thrill that comes from eating meat that you know might be suspect, and it was nothing like what we called Chinese food back home. There was no sweetness to it, and little delicacy, and dishes generally included quantities of nuts, strange vegetables, and numbing star anise that was a complete and utter surprise. Too much star anise makes you dribble, FYI. There were also squashy ingredients and slimy elements that, with the best will in the world, I hope to never to put in my mouth again. Something like eels with Vaseline, or kidneys covered in slime. Not nice.
However, in spite of being as white and as female as we’d been in all the other places, we received nothing but blank looks from our fellow river passengers, as if they were totally over with the novelty of us being there and wanted us to know it. I have a photo of a friend of mine at the back of this boat, quashed by wind and rain, with her hair inadvertently pushed forward by her hood in a manner reminiscent of Princess Anne’s soft quiff-like roll, which seems to express better than any deliberate photo could the improbability of us being there on that boat.
We ended our trip in Beijing, which was loud and exciting after the surrealist quiet of the Yangtze River and the Terracotta prisoners. It is overrun with alleyways, goods, and hawkers selling more Mao kitsch and memorabilia than I will ever see again in my lifetime. Returning home one evening in Beijing, I realised that I’d been sold a huge number of unwanted, yet wholly irreplaceable things: a mah-jongg set with all the pieces intact, a smooth jade bracelet, a small red-stringed Buddha pendant, a retro medicine advertisement featuring a girl in a red dress with white flowers in her hair (which still hangs on my wall today), a large scroll painting in red and cream, and a small red alarm clock which, when wound, moves Mao’s arm, as the second hand, back and forth in a frantically happy wave. I still have it and wind it up sometimes: it’s really quite surreal.
One of my fellow travellers bought a red and white Mao-themed tea set, complete with teapot, teaspoons, and saucers, primarily because “who has one of these?” and, also, because she was excruciatingly aware of the fact that she would never, ever get the opportunity again. The ridiculously low prices provided little dissuasion: in my four-week trip through China, I spent little over £300. It was, and is, difficult to juxtapose the amount of Mao memorabilia willingly sold with what I know of Mao and his brutal regime; but, on closer inspection, it perhaps suggests that I understand nothing really at all.
A lot of things in China made me feel like that.
Unfortunately, the sights of Beijing were a disappointment, especially when compared with the beautifully preserved Japanese shrines and temples that we’d so recently seen. The paint of the Forbidden City was flaking off the walls—remnants of lead-based red and green were the final indicators of splendour long, long passed—and the well-trodden floors of the open spaces of the interior had been flooded with a rough layer of plain concrete. Everything, including the Summer Palace, felt shabby and neglected with decay. After the colour and sensory assault of the rest of China, is was anti-climatic to find Beijing’s landmarks so lacklustre. This may have all changed since, of course, but government intervention seemed to remove character, rather than add it. In fact, the banality of the Forbidden City made me long for the quirkiness we’d found elsewhere, such as the priceless hypocrisy of the enormous statue of Mao we’d seen in one of the provincial cities, his Communist arm stretched out over a McDonald’s, a Tiffany & Co., and a Starbucks, all lined up in a serenely Capitalist row.
The crux of China seems to be found at those odd, almost surreal, intersections between conflicting ideologies, and between present and past, which suggest how the country is changing in relation to itself, its population, and to the modern world. For me, this was most evident in the places where all types mixed, which means that my most enduring memories of the entire trip are those of dirty, unusual transport systems and of dangerous, delicious food.
About the Author
Lyndsay Wheble is currently editing her first novel, having had work appear in Lowestoft Chronicle, Danse Macabre, the Bicycle Review, Inkapture, Side B Magazine, and elsewhere. Having previously lived in Japan and Germany, she now has it on good authority that she is the only one who ever goes into her local cafe and orders the marshmallow tea. For more info, see lyndsaywheble.com