We are in China: a crowded nation; an ancient nation; a nation of stereotypes; a nation of mystery. We are in China.
We are in Guilin in northern Guangxi province: a city of canals and rivers and bridges and trees. The combination of ancient architecture and natural beauty is captivating. We are in Yangshuo where the Li and Yulong Rivers meet, surrounded by karst peaks. Bamboo rafts drift down river, poled by gumbooted men. Further down river where the tourists dry up, there is a parking lot of bamboo where rafts are dropped into the water off the back of trucks. We ride bicycles between sugarloaf shaped mountains: pregnant women lying on their backs with their knees up.
We are in China and children defecate on the street and men spit inside restaurants; we are in China and we don’t know what we are eating; we are in China and our ears ring with the sound of construction sites; we are in China and we are lost again.
We are in China and we are on the road. Mist and darkness surround us as we pass through mountains and mountain tunnels and mountains again. Groups of single men alight at mining towns which give way to terraced paddies, yellow-flowered, pine-caressed hills, and curving rivers that bank up against dams. The mist and clouds disappear and we are bathed in sunshine and blue skies. We are in China. We are in Yunnan Province, home to 26 ethnic minorities: Yi and Bai, Dai, Naxi and Dongba. In Yunnan, the mountains are high and the emperor is far.
We are in Kunming and we have left the dark skies and dirty cities of Guizhou far behind. We are in Lijiang and we are overwhelmed by the gaucheness of the Old Town. We are in a Chinese Disneyland: ‘ancient’ China spliced uncomfortably with modern China; traditional buildings turned shops illuminated by harsh neon lights, pop music assaulting ear drums; ten shops repeated over and over so by the 20th bongo playing Chinese ‘hippy’ smiling mechanically at us, we start to feel nauseous; night clubs squashed along a river, competing for customers by opening doors and windows and allowing the music to splash out onto the street; nightclubs selling bottles of beer for A$20, paid for by generous locals; karaoke and comedians, people dancing in circles and hordes of Chinese tourists wearing the same Ronaldinho cowboy hats.
We are in China and women wear velvet tracksuits and men wear shirts with floral lapels and chequered sleeves; parasols and lace; ripped jeans and suit jackets; sequins and high-heels. We are in China and hairstyles are eclectic: bowl undercuts, skunk imitations, comb-overs and shags.
We are in Xinghua, a dusty ancient silver town spread before a red rock mountain. Advertisements on the side of the road say ‘the small hammer has been knocking one thousand years’. We negotiate our way out of the 190 Yuan (A$47) entry fee to the town and browse a street of silver bracelets and silver rings displayed in bright cabinets. Factory doors are open for us to walk inside and watch men try to tame coils of silver and handle heavy plates of silver into furnaces.
We are in China and we are with Loui. What do you think the rest of the world thinks of China, we ask him. It’s a place of mystery, Loui says. People don’t understand China and our customs and why we act the way we do and this can be confusing. It’s difficult to know China from the outside.
We are tigers leaping gorges: the Jinsha River is far below us; a calm placid sea green; a harmless snake disappearing between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain; we are dancing under waterfalls and we are lying in fields of green Naxi villages, ancient traders on the Tibetan plateau; we are pack mules trudging 28 bends upwards; we are eye to eye with grey rock and white snow; we are 6,000 metres up and then we are running down stairwells to drink from the raging river gorge.
We are in Weishan, where the people are as old as the buildings. Buildings of clay bricks and green tiled sloping roofs reinforced with hay. Frail gentlemen sit on corners people-watching, their faces weatherworn. Walls crumble and grass grows out of roof tiles; hair grows from ears and bodies are supported by canes. Games of mahjong play out on the streets. The elderly rule Weishan with their grandchildren at their sides.
We are in China and the elderly are active. They perform Tai Chi in gardens, along riverbanks, under bridges, and in car parks. They are directed by voice recordings: slow movements and fast movements and hand rotations and leg stretches. They dance to songs on busy streets and walk briskly in track pants. They dance with swords and with grace.
We are in Zhoumulang and our breath is taken by the elegance of Yi women in traditional clothing: an ensemble of bright green and pink floral embroidery. Patches of cultivated land leave green blemishes on the steep, red-earth mountainside. Wind farms dot the skyline that becomes hazier the higher we ascend. Trucks stacked high with wood, huff and puff along narrow mountain passes. A young man burns eucalyptus leaves in a large cauldron and oil drips into a bucket. Children run home from school down hill tracks. An old woman with a toothless smile tends goats.
We are in Zhoumulang. From a distance it looks as if houses are built upon houses upon houses, but as we walk through the streets we see the village, like the Yi farming practices, is tiered. The air is dusty, the earth is red and clay-like. The women work on building sites, moving rocks with baskets on their backs. A little boy stands on a wall staring at us; his penis sticks out from a hole in his pants. Wooden balconies look inwards to dusty courtyards. A woman with wind-battered cheeks proudly lays out embroidered slippers, the toes turned up like pixie shoes, on a small bed in a small bedroom. A pair of slippers is a 6 month labour and sells for 8,000 Yuan (A$2,000).
We are in China and we are in a monastery where monks teach martial arts classes. A student balances a rock on his head as he walks up the mountain path. We are in China.
We are in Dali, we are in Dali Old Town; we are on ancient caravan trading routes, we are on the Tea Horse Road, we are on the Southern Silk Road; we are in the shade of the snow-blessed Cangshan Mountain; we are on the banks of the sapphire blue Erhai Lake; we are sleeping in white stone houses, peaked with dragons and phoenixes and rabbits; walls of white and blue tile murals of mountains and trees and lakes; we are breathing fresh mountain air; air that cracks lips and dries throats and hardens snot painfully inside noses.
We are in Yunnan, we are in China.