I’m one day back from my first extended trip in China. Home, I’ve already managed to watch two movies, eat a lavish meal, start a new book (Coetzee’s Age of Iron), go on a bike ride, catch up with most of my TA friends, win a game of some impromptu sport involving a soccer ball, getting sucked into and striving at a sport for the first time I can remember (quite the peculiar thing), shoot fireworks out my window, and cut myself a new head.
After waking up in Beijing, taking a taxi to the airport, taking an airplane to Foshan, walking a while, taking a motorcycle taxi to the train station, finding out it was the wrong train station, taking a bus to Foshan’s bus terminal, taking a bus to Zhuhai, stopping in at the Aussie bar for a chance encounter with a couple long-not-seen friends, and taking a bus home, I set some Frampton tunes to thunking, went in the bathroom, and cut about half of my hair clean off. Not the half you think.
Part of the inspiration was merely momentary (momentous?): I’d spent the whole day inert, in chairs, and I wanted to stand up and do something that was doing something. Part of the inspiration was metaphysical, identity-related: I find myself living in the world of Blade Runner so I might as well enjoy playing one of the background characters. Indeed, I feel I could play a right extra in anything from Akira to Bubblegum Crisis right now, a real cyberpunk citizen I’ll get to enjoy playing at for the next while. Part of the inspiration was symbolic: I’ve decided to experiment with a fairly different lifestyle and routine this coming semester than I had last semester, a more focused one with emphases on discipline and completion of things; like my hair, the linear order of it will be a facade, and also like my newfound head, it should be a fun one to wear.
The last two weeks have been tremendous and it simply wouldn’t have made sense to come back out of them the same person. The second half of the journey had me backpacking Northward to Xi’an and Beijing with Sean Stanhill and Sam Smith. Sean is my brother, my lifelong best bud, and in many ways and instances the inspiration for the world-traveling that I’m doing now. Sam is my erstwhile roommate, as old and close a friend as I have outside family, and one of the people with whom I’ve been sharing dreams for the last several years. For these to be my comrades on such a trip – so long waited on, so spontaneously lived – was as meaningful to my past selves looking on as it was simply an easy good time to the part of me who’s present in every moment and enjoying its good time.
Before going to Xi’an, Sean and I took a couple days’ rest here in Zhuhai after the first leg of our journey: Hong Kong and Macau. We started joking near the end of our trip that we’d checked off the list and officially beaten the China chapter of the high school textbooks in our minds. I could put it this way:
- Visit Aberdeen junk boat city
- Visit Central Hong Kong, where the world’s most powerful banks flourish and flaunt
- Hang out with the Occupy Hong Kong people next to the HSBC building
- Visit Mong Kok, the world’s most densely populated neighborhood
- Visit Victoria Peak, the world’s most expensive
- Eat Indian food in the downstairs market of the infamous Chungking Mansions
- Ride the world’s longest escalator system
- Enjoy the views
- Enjoy the Portuguese food
- Gamble a smidge in the city whose revenues just passed Vegas’s
- View Emperor Qin Shihuang’s terra cotta army
- Walk the Banpo Museum, which houses a preserved village from 6,000 years ago
- Hang out in the Muslim Quarter, marking the end of the Silk Road
- Sit in the Big Wild Goose Pagoda where Xuanzang translated the bulk of China’s Buddhist texts after his 16-year journey to the West
- Take in the artifacts at the Shaanxi History Museum, in the former capital that housed many of China’s greatest dynasties
- Forbidden City
- Tiananmen Square
- Great Wall
- scorpion on a stick
Of course, adventure being what it is, so much of the wonder of those places was far-removed from anything they’d share in a textbook, and so much of the glory of the trip had nothing to do with famous places.
The days passed slowly, thick and vivid, and to try and describe them would take as long as it took to be them. I’m already waxing windy, so I’ll keep the remainder of this post to a couple episodes.
The timing of our trip coincided perfectly with China’s biggest celebration of the year: Spring Festival. Starting with the lunar new year, Spring Festival lasts for two weeks following and is a time when everybody in China returns to home and family. It is at once the most difficult time to travel – it took me a week of efforts to buy train tickets from Zhuhai to Xi’an – yet a perfect time to be travelers, as everybody else is spending time with family and we got to have the world to ourselves. I can’t imagine how different would have been a site like the terra cotta warriors if I’d had to battle hordes of tourists at every juncture, just to get a view in.
At any rate, Sean and I were staying with a mutual acquaintance (now wonderful mutual friend) named Ryan on Lamma Island, the least inhabited of Hong Kong’s satellites. Lamma is not only cozy and quiet (the ordinance against cars on the island suggests something about its community), its lush and sparsely populated and paradisiacal in ways I would never expect in what is still technically a part of Hong Kong. It was a fine vantage point from which to see that city, and it was where we chose to partake in the celebrations of midnight, new year’s eve.
To begin with, we had to run across a fair width of the island to get to the temple in time, due to a scrabble game that had gone on a big too vigorous and long. Hoofing and huffing and panting, we pulled in just as the lion dragon dancers were bringing their beast to slow life. Last semester, my friend Pete and I went to some sessions with the lion dragon dancing and drumming club; understanding only the basic rhythms and motions of the art, I can say that the drummers on Lamma were quite capable, and the head dancer extraordinary. Herm moved not so much in motions as in an unpunctuated stream of livelihood, in jangling constant rain of energy jolts, trickling out in sunbursts of head-tilt tossed-back abandon, tail swishing at vortices, feinting right, left, up, and under my skin. When the dancers together took their first pause and the free-wheeling colossus arched and dashed off like a flesh-and-paper lighting bolt, I hopped to toe-tip and ran in pursuit with hordes of children (most of the adults were lagging a little) to taste whatever was coming of the life-energy we’d all been pulled into. As the caravan slowed, I hung back behind the drummer, feeling the dance not just of the lion dragon but of the whole event – a many-partnered tangle tango’s grace – feeling the dance as through a prism, or as a prism, emerging from drumskin a humming human spectrum, feeding back into it a singular brilliant light. There was ritual going on that I didn’t understand, to be sure, but the event was all animal myth-force, a buzzing from gut to hairtip to neighboring reveler. Then there were fireworks, and they’ve contnued every day since.
JUNKY EL DORADO
My only priority in Hong Kong, aside from doing whatever Ryan suggested and Sean requested was to go to the Chungking Mansions. Despite the plural in its name, Chungking Mansions is a single building, an enormous backpackers’ lodge, swarthy marketplace, and general epicenter of grime. I first learned about it from one of my favorite films, Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express. I tried to keep my eyes on camera mode, shooting fast video in widescreen, taking in as many of the byzantine details as I could.
I fear trying to describe the place because it might actual take on some kind of linguistic-alchemical anomalady and drive myself and my readers a slight tilt mad. I only saw the first floor, the main market area, and it held all the promise of a concentrated enclosed space, a moment in place, where absolutely everything is available to the person looking, from unreleased movies to mystery foods and unmentionables, not to mention a person who tried to bring us back to his room to buy samosas. Chungking is also home to Hong Kong’s best Indian and African food and we indulged indeed. At some point, I asked after a bathroom and was pointed toward a dank, empty stairwell with poor lighting and no other people. I took the stairs up and asked a person on the second floor and he sent me to the same place. I suppose they meant the stairwell was the bathroom. I didn’t test out the theory, Chungking just doesn’t seem like a place to get caught with one’s pants down. I also happened into the alley behind the building, a canyon of trash bags, and it was a fine sight to find.
This last bit’s for my dad, but everybody else is free to read. Three days ago I ate Peking Duck. Beijing Duck, actually, as it is most sensibly called.
I have had the utmost curiosity about the dish since I first learned about it at age ten, and one of the longest-running jokes I’ve ever kept up was requesting it each and every time my dad has ever asked what I wanted for dinner. I wasn’t lying; I really did want it every time.
Three days ago, I got it. It was perfect. The duck came to our table pre-sliced, one place each of immaculately arranged light meat, dark meat, and candied skin. The light meat was to be paced onto thin mushu-like noodle wraps with hoisin sauce, cucumber and onion. The dark meat came with a sweet and sour sauce for dipping. The skin, far away the highlight of an altogether luminous meal, simply came with a bowl of sugar for easy coating. Sean was surprised. He said he’d somehow figured it would taste like something other than duck. On the contrary, we decided, it simply tasted perfectly, wholly, exactly like all duck’s best and purest potential.
My only regret is that I had but one duck’s life to take.