Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Second 10 Hours of a 6-Hour Drive

October 2, 2005

I awoke Sunday morning with that familiar feeling of not knowing where I was. It has happened to me many times since I’ve been in China and will likely continue to happen. I took in the surroundings as I tried to clear my head and figure out where the hell I was. I’ve started treating these times like an international traveler’s game of sorts. My clock said 7:00 am; I was in a strange room, an old hotel, very high ceilings, and a large window facing a parking lot with mountains in the background. Definitely not Kansas, no, I’m not in Kansas, I’m in China, Langfang. No, Langfang is ugly and flat, definitely not Langfang, I’m in Chengde. Where that is, I have no idea, I believe it’s north of Beijing. My legs were cramped from the previous days drive, but I had a flutter in my heart. Mattie. We were going to meet around 8:30 to continue our journey north.

I took a quick, cold shower (not by choice) and decided to see what this city had to offer in the early morning hours. I always enjoy roaming the streets of new cities in the morning, I’m not sure why. I think that they feel less intimidating or more peaceful. Mornings are when love poems are written, mornings are when the air is the cleanest, the rising sun represents things to come and adventures not yet seen. I lived thirty years of my life before I could appreciate the goodness of a sunrise. Thirty years before I realized that only at that time of day is my mind fresh enough to look equally on the past the present and the future, without being tarnished by the days actions. Anger and sadness is best confronted at night along with the rest of things that make life frightening.

This is a beautiful city; across from the hotel is the summer mountain palace of some Chinese emperor. It was built a long time ago and is very big. There were many people already walking around the city migrating to the palace entrance, so naturally, I went the other way. I walked along a river boardwalk for a while, snapping a few pictures, but mostly breathing in the fresh morning air and letting the sun warm my face. I haven’t felt fresh air on my face for months now and it was nice. I watched a bunch of old people dancing, played basketball with some strangers for about 15 minutes and dominated.

By the time I got back to the hotel, Xinlei was out in the car planning out our trip for the day. He’s our own little Clark Griswold. He was having a good time planning and I was having a good time letting him.

It was about 9:30 by the time we got on the road. Sometime during our morning driving session I decided I needed to know where we were going. It turns out, we’re going to Inner Mongolia to a mountain plateau grassland national park called the Bashang Grasslands. They have horses to rent and we can go riding around for a day. I began to think that I didn't pack nearly warm enough.

We got to the park entrance around noon, with over three hours of driving under our belts; I felt relief that we had arrived. We drove on until 1:00 and stopped for lunch. By this time, we were in a wooded area that was really nice. My dreams of good toilets and rest stops fading, I ate a very light lunch of some beer and milk tofu in sugar sauce. It was good and I knew I shouldn't eat it, but my mind, my mouth and my chopstick hand operate on different circuits.

Soon we would be pulling into a hotel parking lot, unloading, and taking a walk around the countryside or something like that. The woods were stunning and I was glad that we were in an area like this. It had been about 4 hours of driving, so I thought we had to be close, but we kept driving. One hour, goodbye woods, two hours, goodbye pavement, three hours, goodbye civilization, four hours, goodbye feeling in my ass. We had been driving through circling dirt roads through a hilly area for hours already, every now and then, a small sign of life would peek through on the horizon; a couple tents, a horse or two, but mostly there were just big billboards describing our destination (in Chinese of course). Finally, around 5:00, we arrived.

Mattie and I are not quite all over each other, there’s still no kissing per se, but we’re definitely holding each other much more and it’s great. If I was on a 6-hour road trip that took 22 hours with only dudes, I’d be livid and looking for the quickest way home. She lays her head in my lap; I stare down at her and stroke her hair. I’ve started to kiss her fingers and the back of her neck, which makes her smile and blush and she’s started doing the same back to me, but still no ‘official’ first kiss. So far, it had been a great day, despite Xinlei’s 14-hour time misjudgment.

Appearing out of nowhere, sitting on the side of a hill, a small village with no name and maybe 1000 people came into view. Only one of the roads was paved. There were tourists everywhere. Apparently, the Bashang Grasslands are a very popular tourist spot, there were Jeeps and knock-off Jeeps all over the place, each one with pounds of camera equipment (knock-offs) and five or six ‘adventurers’ dressed to the tips with bright yellow jackets and goggles, like people at a Colorado ski resort.

I was silly to assume we would have made a reservation, that’s too American. We spent about an hour driving around looking for a hotel room, except that there weren’t any hotels. Everything was bungalow-style actually more like teepee style. All the showers were public, all the toilets were holes in the ground, and nothing had heat. We were in the boonies and I was frightened. I have no problems not showering for three days, I do that all the time, it’s the bathroom and warmth issues that had me worried. I’m really not interested in displaying my poop-balance when I’m courting a lady, which could prove very uncomfortable for the rest of the trip. Prices ranged from 50-100 yaks a night (about $4-$13 USD).

Finally, we found a place that was fairly similar to a hotel. Somehow, Mattie finagled us a couple rooms, Xinlei and I in one, Mattie and Sherry in the other. I knew there were three beds in each room, but that’s all I knew. We didn't have a chance to go in because we had to rush off to see the sunset. By this time, we had about 15 minutes before sunset and the ‘cool’ thing to do is run up to the top of this hill, watch the sun go down and take pictures.

The hill had nearly every tourist in the village on top of it taking pictures, pushing in front of each other to get the prized ‘picture with no people in it’ shot. This is the first time I knew for sure that I was very underdressed. On top of that hill, with the sun disappearing, the wind cuts through you like a knife. I had on three shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of pants and a stocking cap and I was still shivering. The sunset was really beautiful, but I was so cold that I barely noticed it.

There are four of us and three cameras; each person wanted every combination of pictures possible of the four of could make up - one at a time, each of us with each of the other three, each of us with the other two combinations of the other three, all four of us. In case you are wondering, there are a total of 15 combinations of four people per camera, which means 45 pictures. Many of them had to be taken twice because of rude tourists walking in front of the camera and such, so we ‘quickly’ snapped about 75 pictures (if I’m not able to keep my hands and feet warm, at least I can work on my brain warmth with a little statistical permutation analysis in Mongolia).

I was also pretty preoccupied with Mattie, but in my snot-frozen nose state, I didn't think it would be very appropriate to try and get a good ‘sunset kiss’ and she didn't appear to be much more willing than I was, too bad, because it would have been a great romantic and beautiful and all that mushy bullcrap story to tell at parties to other couples (while I’m playing Playstation).

By this time it was dark, the tourists were scampering down the hills back to their rented SUV’s and headed for certain warmth and we were close behind. When the sun went down, the temperature dropped with the quickness and I was ready to go to sleep. I wasn't sure what time it was, nor did I care, I just knew that our three-hour driving day had lasted nearly ten hours so far and I was worn down. I wasn't really hungry, but everyone else was, so we headed to a restaurant. I was hoping we’d at least go to the rooms and scope them out, maybe ‘freshen up’ a bit, but that’s not Chinese style.

Still unsure of the bathroom situation for the rest of the trip, I ate extremely light at dinner. I had a bit of a wind-blown headache and my hands were swollen from the cold wind, I was truly feeling finished for the day. For dinner, Xinlei ordered each of us a whole sheep leg; these things came out looking like some real Flintstone-type shit. It was awesome, it tasted like it was soaked in butter before they grilled it. We all ate our whole brontosaurus leg and I thought we were finished, little did I know that there were still about four more dishes coming out. You would think that after four months here I would remember this, but I still forget it. I think a big part of it is that I don't understand what they’re ordering, so I cant take a subconscious count of the rounds of food we’re going to be getting, in my family, it was always kind of fight for yourself at the dinner table.

Finally, after about an hour and a half, we were ready to head to our rooms, or so I thought. Xinlei wanted to go some place for a couple beers. You have got to be kidding me, I finally had to pipe in “Can we at least go check in first, see the rooms and stuff.” The suspense over the accommodations was killing me, I just had to know, good or bad, just give me one less thing to question. I’m already in a car where 90% of the conversation is in Chinese, I only found out where we were going three hours ago, I never know what kind of food I’m going to get (it’s kind of like being a child again). Everyone was in agreement, so we headed to the hotel. The restaurant that where we ate was in the same parking lot as the hotel, so we were already there practically, let’s just walk the extra twenty feet people.

The ‘hotel’ was basically a dormitory. It had that loud echo sound in the hallways from the tile and cement covering every inch of the place. There were only two floors with a metal staircase in the middle of the building that resembled a parking garage. The place was sold out, packed with tourists from all over (China, not the world, I was informed that I was the only foreigner in the whole town). The rooms unlocked and I walked into my room expecting the unknown, knowing that I would be surprised at something.

Here’s the breakdown of the hotel room: No heat, normal toilets - but that doesn't matter because there’s no water in them and no toilet paper, a shower that points directly at the toilet, no shower curtain, three beds, one pillow filled with seeds on each bed, about six blankets on each bed, 14-inch television in the corner and that’s it. I was thrilled and let down at the same time about the toilets, curious about the shower and greatly confused about the heat. Why the hell would you have a place without heat in Inner Mongolia? I can understand that if you lived in Egypt, but this is Inner Mongolia. You people are tough as nails. I was about ready to make a mattress-stuffing fire in the room to thaw out my toes. Mattie and Sherry are in the room next to us in a room exactly the same (except that Mattie is beautiful, which makes their room better).

After a bit, we took off to grab a beer. We never did find a bar, but did stop at the local General Store for some supplies. This was a 1/10th scale version of a Langfang shopping center. It was about the size of two of my hotel rooms and packed head-to-toe with stuff. One room was all overprices warm weather gear (overpriced for China, still dirt cheap by worldwide standards, provided you’re not taller than 5’6”). The food isle consists of about 1000 variations of the same thing, this milk/cheese/sugar/tofu stuff. It tastes decent, but it’s kind of like salt-water taffy, more of a gimmick than anything. Sherry and Mattie bought into the shit hook, line and sinker and bought about twenty pounds of it. I bought four pairs of gloves for about 12 yaks ($1.50 USD), thinking that they may be of some use in this midget tundra. I also had a couple pictures taken of me, but the people here were genuinely nice and happy to help and oblige. Everyone that I’m with is extremely fun loving, so it’s had a tendency of rubbing off on the people around us.

The town was still crawling with Chinese outdoorsmen in fake Columbia jacket and fake Oakley goggles, all hauling expensive camera gear out of their various Jeep and pseudo-Jeeps. The roads were all dirt, most with cattle and sheep mixing with the people. Looking at these people, I begin to get a sense of a people desperate to have a good time, almost forcing it too much. The holiday seems almost forced on everyone – “You’re going to take a trip, relax and have fun. You will leave at 8:27 am Saturday and may not return until between 4:34 and 6:21 pm Tuesday night.” I’m sure I’m wrong, but I just get a feeling of ‘power vacation’ - holiday your ass off and worry about the details of fun afterwards. Maybe it’s that to most of these people, holidays are not a very traditional pastime, and they’re kind of going through the motions based on some badly translated version of a 1960’s Disney comedy about a family vacation.

While trying to sort out the Chinese Holiday Puzzle in my head, I realized that we were on our way back to the dorms. I was tired and ready for a cold sleep.

I got back to my room and put on all of the clothes I brought to stay warm overnight and everyone else was doing the same. Mattie came down to use our shower, because their shower didn't have hot water. She kicked me out of the room, as expected, so I went down and chilled in her and Sherry’s room while waiting. Pretty soon, Sherry went down and joined Mattie in the shower (whoa, kinky), but it was just a matter of speed and another example of how Chinese people are used to being around a million people whenever they do anything.

By the time they came back to their rooms, I was nearly asleep and ushered down to my room. I was hopeful for a kiss, but not in much of a mood to chase it down and face the inevitable turndown, so I laid down and immediately fell asleep. Monday morning was going to start around 9:00 am and feature horse riding. I’m no John Wayne, but I did grow up in Kansas, and my grandparents did have a couple horses that I occasionally saw, so I wasn't too worried.

The final goodnight consisted of Mattie sticking her head around the corner and saying goodnight and quickly leaving. Pretty anti-climatic, but that was fine with me, I was determined to not let my normal relationship practices ruin a potential good thing, plus, we still had two days, and being around her for 48 hours after rejection would make me miserable, it’s best to have dreams of ‘what could be’ rather than ‘what really is’.

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