Tuesday, December 20, 2005

My Horses! My Horses!

October 3, 2005

I have never been so cold in my life. I was woken up at around 7:30 am by the sound of a jackhammer outside. It was only after I remembered that there was no electricity here that I realized that the jackhammer was actually my teeth. My bed had three quilts and three sheets, plus my two pairs of pants, two pairs of underwear, three shirts, two pairs of socks and gloves are no match for the climate here. It’s almost as if there were no walls. What walls there are, are paper-thin, so I can hear every conversation in the whole place, every disgusting sound, every footstep. I think the entire country of China wakes up, clears their throats and spits on the floor every day. It sounded like the guy next door to us had a hedgehog stuck in his throat.

I knew that if I took a shower I would either have to stand in the toilet or risk pneumonia so I decided to just wash my face and brush my teeth. I fired up my computer and wrote for an hour or so while I waited for everyone to get up. Around 8:30, Xinlei woke up to the same jackhammer sound. To wake Mattie and Sherry up, he simply knocked lightly on the wall and they were up (these walls are so thin I wouldn't be surprised if my typing had woken them up.)

The wind was heavy, but the sun was warm on our faces as we walked across the parking lot to grab breakfast. The food was stunning. First was the warm goat milk tea. It may sound kind of odd, but with a little bit of sugar, tasted really good (plus, this is China, please leave you inhibitions at the door). There was some bean porridge soup, which I tasted but didn't eat much of, that stuff made my intestinal radar light up like a Christmas tree (colon regulation is a 24-hour job), plus a bowl of birdseed. There were about six plates of various Chinese danishes on the table. I grabbed the butter (or what I thought was butter) and started laying it on like grommet in a shower. Mattie told me that it was actually some sort of tofu. I’m through with this stupid game people! If it looks and tastes like butter, I’m calling it butter. I’m tired of people telling me I don't know my business. That’s not broccoli it’s celery. Those aren’t supposed to be worn outside of your pants. That’s not a toy; it’s an electrical outlet. Just let me learn the hard way, the lessons just stick better that way. Breakfast was great and we all left happy, ready to wrangle us some horses on the wild frontier.

Mattie, more and more concerned for my safety, was convinced that I wasn't wearing enough clothes; by this time, I was wearing five shirts, two pair of shorts, two socks, cargos and a stocking hat. But we went to the general store anyway and her and Sherry bought coats, but they didn't have anything in my size (gasps of surprise). Finally, after I promised to put another shirt on and another pair of pants on, Mattie released me from further humiliation of trying clothes on in front of the locals. I went outside and Xinlei videotaped me changing clothes in the middle of the street. When it was all said and done, I had on seven shirts, two pairs of shorts, two pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, one set of skid marks, and my trusty Adidas stocking hat.

The horse rental agency was about fifteen minutes away from town. We got out and abandoned the relative safety and warmth of a four-wheel vehicle to four-legged animals that don't understand English. We stepped out of the car and were filed into line with the rest of the tourist cattle, until they saw me. Leading me by the hand, they pulled us aside and took a couple pictures of me and fitted us with these horseshit mudguards that came up to our knees. They barely fit me, but they had duct tape if it was necessary. We were all put in front of a horse; my horse’s name was #66. I impressed everyone with my graceful mount and immediate dismount onto the ground, but I was soon strapped in and ready to go.

Here’s the problem. A typical Chinese person is about 5’6”, maybe. That means that they don't need Clydesdales. A basic law of nature states that all things will seek equilibrium; it’s the basis for evolution and population genetics. Over the 4000 year history of China, feeding and horse growing techniques have naturally settled into a perfect equilibrium where the size of the horse is always about the same because every horse gets the exact same upbringing and each horse is properly inbred with it’s family to keep the genes straight, just like Hitler and royal families in the 1500’s did. Even the horses have been forced into communism. If horses are larger than necessary for Citizen, then you don't have to feed them as much, thus saving money (which is the bottom line of everything in China.) What is that size? What is the result of 4000 years of controlled breeding and feeding techniques? Roughly the size of a Black Labrador. My horse looked like it had its legs amputated below the knees. He was grazing on grass and didn't even notice walking between my legs.

It goes beyond that, there’s no reason to make stirrups (those are the little thingy’s that you put your doggies in) that adjust to fit people over six feet tall, they would just drag on the ground. Nor is it important to waste extra leather on saddles that fit American asses, which would make the hose look like it has one of those government airplane radio towers spinning on it’s back. The stirrups at their maximum length hang to about two-thirds the way down the horses neck and the saddle is the size of a dinner plate (with a steel lip around the back side that lines up perfectly with my tail-bone). Every time the horse ran, my ass-bone kept hitting this metal bar, all day long, thump, thump, thump. I kind of look like a jockey-riding Lassie in the Special Olympics version of the Kentucky Derby.

It’s ok, I thought to myself, how long could we be out here? Two, maybe three hours?

The four of us were off, Xinlei heading the pack, dressed in a woman’s leather cowboy hat, leather jacket, mudguards, Timberlands and fingerless blue weight-lifting gloves. This is his first time ever on a horse and the guy is a natural. His coordination and grace piss me off, mainly because I’m embarrassed by my lack of both. We had a tour guide with us who held the reins of my horse while everyone else ran free. It could be easy to see how I don't look like a typical Chinese cowboy, but I’ve ridden horses before man, let me go, this doggie wants to run!!

Eventually, after about half an hour, Xinlei convinces the guy that I’ve ridden a horse before (true it’s been 20 years ago, but it still counts), and the guy lets me go. The horse takes off like he was escaping from prison, nearly making me bounce off the back end of the little guy.

Once again, I was unintentionally kept in the dark about our destination (if I understood Chinese, all of this would be much more simple). We rode for about an hour, running our horses as much as possible, my ass taking a beating the whole time (if you have made more than three gay jokes so far, you are out of turns and must sit this chapter out, thank you). After an hour, we came upon what looked like a restaurant. We all got off the horses to give them a break, especially mine, poor old 66. Instead of going inside to eat, we walked behind the building to a farm pond and spend about half an hour snapping pictures from an extremely unstable deck. By this time, we were about as deep into the heart of nature as you could possibly get in China. The light green hills rolled off in all directions, every now and then broken by a couple of trees or herd of sheep. The sky was clear and blue as I have ever seen it. The wind was still strong, but thanks to about thirty pounds of extra clothes, I was not cold. It was very relaxing, minus my locked up knees and broken ass bone.

I assumed that this was our destination and we were soon to be heading back, but I was wrong, again. This was the halfway point; we were on our way to a mountain called Five-Colors Mountain that was supposed to be breathtaking. Holy crap. This Chinese power-vacation is going to kill me. I hope my legs don't fall off before then, plus there’s the trip back, that shit is going to smart.

We mounted up (“That means ‘get on your horse’” Steve Martin whispered to me) and were off again. As we circled out from the building, we noticed a camel standing in the pasture. If my memory serves me right, I thought camels were supposed to be desert animals, but there he was, loud and proud, giving the horses the stink-eye. Horses and camels are the cats and dogs of the equine and dromedary worlds but not the feline and canine worlds (as any fool can plainly understand). Sure enough, all of our horses made sure to go the long way around. I can understand their animosity; camels have the best toes, yet horses are still picked for any non-donkey sex movies. There was another small group of Citizens on the same pilgrimage nearby. One of the guys was on a horse that started to go totally ape-shit and knocked the rider off then stepped on him. It happened about five feet away from me and it looked like it hurt. I made sure he was still moving and got the hell out of there, I didn't come here to play a clown in a damn rodeo and Inner Mongolia is no place for a honkey to be a hero.

Continuing our journey through the hills was quite relaxing when I could keep ol’ Gluestick from taking off into a run (all I really had to do was put my feet on the ground like Yosemite Sam). We rode through a herd of cows, which was a real crowd pleaser for everyone except me; these are probably the largest pieces of continuous meat in the whole of China. I was raised in Kansas; I’m not impressed in a cow unless he’s on a plate with a baked potato next to him.

After another hour or so, we finally arrived, Five-Color Mountain. Apparently, large hill and mountain translate the exact same. Five-Color Mountain was about the same size as the other 200 hills we rode across on our way here, the only difference was that this hill had trees on it. There were flocks of Citizens around the mountain, snapping pictures, ohhing and ahhing.

While I wasn't taking posing with trees or making leaf impressions in my diary, it was quite enjoyable. I wasn't impressed like seeing the Great Wall or a dentist or in awe of the trees, but that there actually existed this much open land in China that didn't have taxis, prostitutes or bicycle shops on it. I was actually standing on ground that was more than empty dirt, ground that wasn't littered in trash, breathing air that was not polluted, under a sky that was clear as any sky in the rest of the world, not blocked by a thick cloud of smoke and pain.

We got off our horses and laid around for a half hour, everyone took pictures (except me), I just laid on the ground and looked at the sky. This place really isn’t much different than the Flint Hills in Kansas, but it is sure a nice change. Who would have thought a place with so little to see could be so beautiful. Eventually Mattie joined me and asked what was wrong; I just smiled and told her that the rest of China should be so beautiful. I just didn't have the energy or desire to go frolicking in the trees or to take pictures of something so common throughout America, I just wanted to lay there and think about why I have never done this in my own backyard back home. We laid on the ground together for a while longer and then got ready to take off, back to the corral, the car, and the civilization we left behind.

Before setting back, our ‘tour guide’, who was off shitting in the woods, told us that these horses know the way back and that they will run hard and don't like to slow down, so be careful. This turned out to be a true warning, Xinlei and Mattie took off like champs on their steeds and poor little #66 tried to keep up with them, but his little stumpy legs just couldn't seem to cope with my weight, but it sure didn't keep him from trying. In the meantime, I felt like my ass was going to explode, it hurt so bad, just thumping up and down with all 250 lbs of my body on it. My legs were made useless from atrophy of having circulation cut off from the Chinese leg style stirrups (it was like having your ankles tied tightly to your thighs). Sherry wasn't faring much better, so we tried to hold back our horses as best we could, but it was a losing battle. Eventually the tour guide comes to my rescue and grabbed hold of the horse, I looked down and realized that my horse had broken out in a massive sweat and there was a heavy rabid-dog like froth dripping from his mouth and was probably about to die. Reluctantly, I dismounted and tossed 66 over my shoulder like a fireman and carried him in the rest of the way.

The ride out to the mountain took about two and a half hours, but the trip back took right around an hour, but it felt like about six. We rode up to the corral to see Mattie going toe to toe with the corral-master on the price, I just wanted to go home and soak my ass in the broken toilet. So far this trip, Mattie has haggled the price on everything we’ve bought; hotels, horses, her and Sherry’s coats, she’d probably haggle Jesus for some better sandals if she had the chance. I don't like to haggle that much, but I have no problem letting others do it and cashing in on the benefits of their efforts. The stuff here is so cheap that sticker cost is still half the price of anything in America. She vehemently denied it, but she loves haggling.

I was sure everyone was as worn out as I was (maybe without the throbbing ass, but still tired), I probably would have been better off jogging alongside the horses. We got back into the car and drive in the opposite direction of the dorms. This is strange; maybe Xinlei just doesn't know where he is going.

“Hey dude, you’re going the wrong way.”

“No, we’re going somewhere else, there’s supposed to be a lake around here that rents horses.”

“What?! Dude, we just left a lake with horses, are you drunk? I like lakes, but if I see another horse, I’ll be forced to shoot myself in the foot to get out of this army.”

“We probably won’t rent horses, but we’ll go look at the lake.”

“Ohh, ok man, if you guys want to rent horses, go ahead, I’ll just chill out in the car.” These people are just weird. Striving to see everything in as little time as possible.

The second horse place was packed and we didn't even get out of the car, not that I could if I wanted to. By this time, my knees were pretty much locked in the fetal position and my back felt like someone had driven a railroad spike into it, but Mattie’s eyes were still the perfect painkillers. She could see how bad I was hurting, even though I wasn't sure how to explain a broken ass to her, but she let me lie down in her lap and kiss her fingers, which somehow lessened my backdoor pain.

It was approaching sunset, so we headed back to Tourist Hill to see the sun go down. The last thing I needed to do in my weakened state was climb a hill in an where the temperature on the climb down would be at least 20 degrees lower than the climb up, but we went anyway. You wouldn't believe it if I told you, but the sun went down again, just like the night before, but for some reason, Citizens were still going ape-shit.

Xinlei and Sherry started their descent, leaving Mattie and I in a perfect ‘first kiss’ situation; the Inner Mongolian sun slowly dipping behind the hills on the horizon, my ass swollen up like a baboon, snot frozen gently to our lips, our skin smelling vaguely like horse shit. It was perfect in more ways than one.

We were holding each other closely (mostly to stay warm), our heads swaying slowly together, whispers; it was close to contact time.

“Lucas, I want to, but I just can't have this right now, I’m sorry. I just have to be honest with you, we can not do this.”

“That’s alright, I’m sorry, I wasn't trying to pressure you in any way.” I said. I really wasn't too sorry, but the opportunity just seemed to present itself. We had spent the last day holding hands or embracing each other in some way, I just assumed that this was going in that direction. I wasn't really hurt, maybe disappointed, but it happens. Mattie is very cool and our time together has been fun, but that post-turndown car ride tomorrow was sure to weigh heavy on my mind for the rest of the day.

These thoughts rolled through my head, like the hills in Mongolia, as we made our way back to the car. My legs were limping, my heart was wounded a bit and my ego was back to it’s normal deflated self.

As we pulled away, Mattie said that her stomach was hurting. She told me that she has had stomach problems most of her life, sometimes they were worse than others. Often the problems come from a cold weather and physical exertion. Wouldn't a boat ride on the Nile be better than horseback riding in Inner Mongolia? She was quickly doubled over in pain and there was nothing I could do to help her except be there for her, and I wasn't sure she even wanted that. We drove to the dorm and sat in the car for a while with the heater cranked, but she was just getting worse and worse.

We drove over to the local drug store (which is the same store I bought gloves, milk candy and tried on a Mongolian-princess wool hat.) Sherry went in and bought her some medicine, which did no good. Eventually, we realized that she needed some sort of medical attention. Ba Shang had a small clinic that served the city’s medical needs, so we carried her into it.

I was not prepared for this. If you were to ask me ten years ago when I was flunking my freshman year of college in western Kansas what I’d be doing when I was 30; carrying a beautiful Chinese woman to a hospital in Inner Mongolia would have been the last thing I’d have said. How did things turn this quickly?

This place was a trip. The beds were like beds from MASH, the room was worse. It stunk like piss, it was freezing, the windows were part open, there were ashtrays on the nightstands. Mattie couldn't even open her eyes (lucky her). There were two other people in the room; one bed had a guy getting acupuncture in his face, a man laid in another bed getting an IV because of a horse attack. Both were smoking. Eventually, a doctor came in and said that they were going to give her a shot. Mattie’s painful moans in the background were unbelievable.

“Xinlei, make sure they give her a clean needle. Don't fuck around on this one.” I insisted. I’ve always heard horror stories of unclean needles in other countries and this was the perfect place for that stereotype to come true.

After her shot, I sat with her, holding her head, stroking her hair, trying to be comforting, but not sure if I was doing a very good job at it. She looked up at me with her big brown eyes; it was like she could see into my soul. She felt really embarrassed and apologetic for ‘ruining the week’. Why do people do that? Xinlei said the same thing after that guy sideswiped him a couple days ago.

An hour later, she was much better and even ready for dinner, of course I wasn't. I was still in a haze from what happened from the Sunset Letdown to the Mongolian hospital, plus my stomach was talking to me and I was frightened of the bathroom still. We went to the same restaurant from the night before and ordered a bunch of food. I barely touched mine; my spirits were as broken as my tailbone. I just wanted to go to sleep.

The food helped Mattie quite a bit and before long, it was as if she was never even in the dangerous hospital/bar and grill.

We were leaving town tomorrow and I was ready to go. Xinlei said that it was about six hours home, but I knew better, I’d give us ten at a minimum (maybe he’s measuring in metric time units, 100 minutes to an hour, 100 hours to a day, 100 days to a month – Isn’t that how the Chinese calendar works?)

That night I tried to write for a bit but it was just no good. I just needed sleep, good hard, non-horseback sleep. Let tomorrow be what as it may.

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