The Price

April 30, 2017 – Ningxia Province

The cabbie drove as cabbies across the world do, only this time he was jamming into oncoming traffic, past trains slow-moving tourist cars on a tree-lined, two-lane country road, forcing himself back into the chain of vehicles here and there, muttering to himself, and occasionally offering me some cheerful advice.

It got worse as we got close to the mountains and we hit stretches of road that looked like they’d been washed out — some covered in large rocks, some gone completely and now topped not by blacktop but by backhoes and men with shovels.  When we encountered these, we’d veer off the road onto a gravel path and swerve around the people who seemed to actually care for their vehicles, scaring mountain bikers into the bushes.

Somehow, we made it. And so did everyone around us. I hope.

I bid a hasty farewell and went to check out the 10,000-year-old rock carvings, as well as what my guidebook told me was the “world’s only rock carving museum.”

Emphasis on the “was”. The same flood that had ripped out of the Helan Shan Mountains back in August and destroyed the roads had also destroyed the museum and most of the pathways around the canyon that the carvings call home. Luckily, the park had set up some makeshift plywood walkways so it was still possible to wander the canyon (to a point) and marvel at the carvings.

They cover the rock faces. The twisted human faces, hands, monkeys, horses, and spirals. In some places one or two or three huddle together. Others tell some ancient tale. Goats escaping from a pen. Deer running. People making love.

And others bunch together by the dozens, whole slabs taken up almost entirely by the art of the long-vanished tribes.

Even the Western Xia understood there was something to the place. Next to some of the more significant carvings, other carvings found root: Carvings of Xia characters, these only 1,000-years old, rather than 10,000. The characters the Xia carved pay homage to their ancestors.

Whoever they were.

Up a set of closed stairs a few dozen meters above the canyon floor is the most impressive carving: The Sun God. He radiates out of the rock like some pasta-headed medusa, watching those who walk the ancients paths.

He wasn’t the only watcher, either. At the canyon mouth the remains of a Ming Dynasty (14-15th century) guard town also watch the way from their perch up the canyon wall. The Helan Shan had long been one of China’s most effective barriers against the barbarians of the Mongolian steppe beyond.

The cab ride back to Yinchuan took about an hour. I still had one thing left to see. The city’s West Tower, which is more than 1,000 years old, although it’s been rebuilt a couple of times since. It’s 11 floors worth of dark, wood steps to the top, but the reward is a 360-degree view of Yinchuan, it’s parks, mosques, and endless apartment blocks.

Somewhere out there among them was my hostel, and it was about time to get there. As is too often true, all the things that could tell me the name of my hostel or its location were dead. So I just started walking, deciding that going in the direction the city drum tower was a fine idea. I got there. Then, I wandered around it for a while. I didn’t find my hostel.

Finally, realizing I was never going to find it no matter how many times I walked in a circle around the tower, I stopped in a coffee shop and charged my phone, and computer, and e-book. My hostel was 20 kilometers away on the other side of town. I rode the rush-hour bus for a hour to get there. All I wanted to do was check in.

I’d booked a bed over the internet a couple weeks before, but as I tried to check in, the woman at the desk had no idea what I was talking about. She didn’t even know the website. As I waited in the lobby for her to figure it out – I hoped – a Chinese kid walked downstairs. His eyes lit up when he saw me.

I was tired. So I told him I was from France.

He beamed. Then French flowed forth from his mouth as he dancing from foot to foot. Apparently he was a French major. The only Chinese French major I’ve ever met. I scrambled for an excuse.

“Canada,” I blurted. “French Canadian.”

“You don’t speak French?” he asked.

“Not even a little,” I said.

His face sunk. Then he told me he could show me where to eat, anyway. Now I owed him, I figured, so I left my booking problem to be sorted and followed him a couple of blocks as he skipped around traffic and bumbled through broken English, clearly nervous to be talking to me. He was a Chinese college student from Hunan, travelling through Ningxia. He didn’t know any foreigners where he was from, he said. Alex was his name.

Alex took me into an alleyway, which opened up into one of China’s great open-air food markets. Flames boiled out of dozens of stalls, the smoke carrying the tang of spiced meats and veggies over charcoal – the northwest specialty, barbecue skewers, chuan (串), mostly lamb and beef parts, or so they claimed. In the space between, crowds fought over the plastic stools rimming folding card tables. Those that already owned a table, bickered through mouthfuls of food over who should open which beer as they pulled them out of cases stacked next to the tables. Some of the crowd diced with premade dicing cup sets. Music boomed from karaoke joints set on the corners, and from hawkers trying to convince diners their chuan was the best.

Occasionally, the power would go out across a section of street.

I ordered fried sliced noodles – anther local speciality – skewered potatoes, and barbequed chives. He ordered french fries. We both ordered a bottle of the local swill: Xixia Beer. “Beer for the Northwest Man.”

Afterward, Alex told me maybe it was good I didn’t eat any of the meat. He heard of a foreigner once who ate it some.

He thought for a moment while he sashayed. “Stomach ache,” he said.

As we returned to the hostel, he tried to ask me if I liked a band. I understand the name he was trying to pronounce.

“You know, long hair. And drhudhs.”

“Eh?”

“Drhugds.”

“Sorry, I can’t…”

“D. R. U. G.” he said. “Drhugds. In the 70s.”

“Oh,” I said. “Metal music?”

He started to hum “Hey, Jude.”

“Ah, The Beatles,” I said. “Yeah, long hair, drugs. Hippies.”

“Hippies,” he said, trying the word out. “I like hippies.” He paused. “I’m always thinking about stuff, head is going …” He made a whirring motion with his hand.

“It’s good to think about stuff,” I said.

“No. I drive myself crazy,” he said. “Like when I read about physical. Physics, physics.”

He stopped for a moment.

“It’s like that book, The Stranger, by the guy. The only good question is why we’re here at all.”

We parted at the stairs, and I went up to the third-floor bar to work on this blog. Midway through a karaoke performance by one of the bar staff, a very large, kind of old, very drunk woman stumbled through the door. During each performance, she would start to squeal or scream. I could tell by the way the bar staff handled her, she either had something to do with the bar, or was somebody’s mom, or something of the sort.
This went on for a while, and then her attention turned to me.

She tottered over to the corner where I was writing. She grabbed my arm. She slurred something. She winked at me. She stuck out her tongue and wiggled it around.

I pleaded with her to let me work. Very busy I said. She kept making kissy faces at me. I kept pleading. The bar staff looked on, unsure what to do. Periodically they’d come over and gently try to lead her away. She’d push them away. Hard.

She started stroking my arm hair, grabbing it, pulling it. She moved her hand to the inside of my leg and started grabbing at my crotch. I stood up and started to gather my stuff. She pushed me into the corner, and held me there. I started to flash “help me” eyes at anyone who would look at me. Nobody would.

Then, in quick succession, she punched me in the face, licked me, let me go by, and kicked me in the butt, twice, as I hurried by. As I paid the bill, she blew one more kiss at me.

The bar manager apologized. He still made me pay the whole bill.

I finally got into my bunk, prepared to deal with noise all night from people coming in and out, people locking themselves out and banging on the door until someone opened it, people having conversations, and people watching movies  without headphones. And all those things did happen.

I wasn’t prepared, however, for the knock that came about 1 a.m. from the manager asking for the foreigner. Great.

I got up, pulled on a shirt, and made a face when I saw two other non-Chinese standing with her in the hallway. Turned out, they couldn’t speak any Chinese and she couldn’t speak any English, and she had a great idea: She’d wake up me – and everyone else in the room – so I couldn’t stand in the door shoeless and argue back and forth for both parties, while everyone else looked on.

They were looking for a room and hadn’t been able to find one with a room – or maybe one that felt like dealing with their lack of Chinese – until they stumbled on the hostel.

But the hostel had a room, the desk lady said. They accepted. More people might be added though. They declined. They could rent the whole thing! They accepted. It would be twice the price. They declined.

I’m not sure who looked more embarrassed, me or them, as they slunk back down the hallway. The desk woman didn’t flinch.

And she still made me pay the full price when I checked out five hours later.

Shenyang

April 4, 2017 – Shenyang, Liaoning Province

I went to Shenyang because I knew it was a place no one would go with me. It has a reputation.

I’ll admit, it wasn’t my first choice, either. In fact, when I decided Sunday night that I needed to get out of Beijing for a couple of days, it was the only reasonable place to which train tickets were still available. Which tells one something.

Like I said, a reputation.

A reputation for being a dust-and-smoke-choked concrete slab strapped with ropes of unmoving cars. For being a frozen waste and a sweltering sweat-sink. For being a Dickensian hole, full of rusting and oil-painted factories and “satanic mills”.

And in the end, it was some of those things. I had a blast.

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Dusty.

Shenyang (沈阳), like most places in China, is old. Archaeological evidence puts human settlement on the yang (阳)side of the Shen River (now the Hun river, and yes, “yang” as in “yin yang”) as far back as 8,000 years ago, but the city itself dates back to about 300 BCE during China’s Warring States period. It grew in importance over the centuries, eventually becoming a militarized settlement during the Ming Dynasty — one of the most important “guard town” strongholds beyond the Great Wall’s Shanhai (山海) pass wedged between the ocean and the mountains and blocking the way to Peking.

In 1625, horse-riding nomads from the Manchurian steppe took Shenyang. Within 20 years, the Manchu would breach Shanhai Pass and sweep into China proper. The Ming would fall and the “barbarians” would establish the last of China’s dynasties, a foreign one at that. The Qing Dynasty would rule all of China until the last of the emperors, the boy king Puyi, abdicated the throne in 1912 and ended Imperial China’s 2,000-year-long hold on history.

But in 1625, the Manchu had yet to move their capital to Beijing or adopt the full trappings and authority that Han Chinese culture and language would grant them from the Pacific to the Himalayas, and they renamed Shenyang to Shengjing (盛京) or Mukden (in Manchurian), meaning “rising capital”. Then they built a palace and later a tombs, and even after the Manchu ruled all of the Middle Kingdom, Shenyang would remain a secondary capital and a spiritual homeland, a place to keep their treasures and the bodies of their kings.

History wasn’t finished with Shenyang, or Puyi, for that matter. As the clouds of World War gathered over the Pacific Rim, Japan slipped iron tentacles into northeastern China. Then, they pretended to hack one off.

On September 18, 1931, a bit of dynamite exploded near a Japanese-owned rail line just outside of Shenyang.  The explosion was so weak it failed to so much as damage the rail line. Nonetheless, the Imperial Japanese Army blamed Chinese dissidents and used the incident as a pretext for a invasion. But the explosion was a ruse: The Japanese military officers, likely without the knowledge of Tokyo, set the false flag, and soon Japan occupied all of northeast China, setting up Puyi as the puppet emperor of a puppet state. Less than two years later, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations.

Surprisingly, perhaps, evidence of all that history and more still stands in Shenyang despite its wasteland-like reputation, scattered through leafy parks and grand museums. Most of Shenyang indeed does feel like developing China: Broad dusty streets crushed with cars and hemmed with unappealing shops blaring advertisements from tinny speakers. But not all of it.

Downtown, the Qing imperial city still stands amid the skyscrapers, and in the city’s lake-spotted northern park, one of the Qing kings still lies under a hill of dirt, surrounded by moldering gate towers and a circular wall.

Those were for later,though. Shenyang is linked to Beijing by two high speed rail lines so the four-hour journey between cities starts or ends at one of two stations. I arrived at the main station and would leave from the north station before dawn two dance hence, so I’d booked a room (about 8 USD a night) at the state-owned China Post Hotel next to the north station square.

I resolved to walk from the main station to the north one in order to get a feel for Shenyang and hit a couple of the city landmarks along the way, starting with Chairman Mao.

I’ve got a thing for statues of communist leaders. And this one was supposed to be particularly interesting – the largest Mao statue sculpted during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

From the train station, it was a straight shot, and after a couple of blocks I could see him there, unblocked by buildings, arm outstretched, eyes locked on what would turn out to be a disastrous future. He stands in the middle of a barren traffic roundabout, surrounded by steroidal workers, scholars, and Red Army soldiers, all of whom grimace while they brandish stuff. If you were to look closely, you’d notice that many of these figures held one hand above their head, thumb and pointer finger nearly touching in a pinching gesture. When the sculpture was completed during the height of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, these hands all held Mao’s Little Red Book, required reading and required carrying for the legions of red guards – and ordinary people who did the best to avoid those gangs – for that decade.

All of those books were later disappeared, lost much like so many of the details – and lives, for that matter – from that decade of ideological insanity and murderous anarchy.

After Mao it was a slog of block after block of soon-to-open malls and closed-for-the-holiday stores, broken up only by one street leaning toward artsy with some new, western-style bars and cafes (an American BBQ joint) and some odd statues of girls reading books or men playing accordions and even a “Gutenberg’s Bookstore” styled – sort of – like a European book house.

Eventually I found the north train station, mostly on accident, and also my hotel.

The receptionist there would hardly talk to me, let alone look at me, and I began to get the feeling that things weren’t going to go as I’d planned. When I checked into my room, the first thing I noticed was the horrifying way the bad florescent light gave the room a nightmare, things-are-not-quite-real-nor-are-they-quite-right kind of sheen. It was hard to look at anything, as if everything shimmered just enough to throw me off balance.

The second thing I noticed was there wasn’t a bathroom.

The price-point, if not the actual furniture, was starting to come into focus.IMG_20170403_233750_HDR

I walked out of the room. The bathroom was next door. Communal. Urinals. Squatters. No showers. Floor covered with cigarette butts. I went back to my room and sat down on the shimmering bed. There was a plastic tub on the shelf in the corner of the room above the complimentary flip flop shoes. It was the kind of tub I’d seen before in Beijing’s hutongs and in villages next to rivers, the kind of tub people fill with water and use to wash themselves when they don’t have a shower. Great.

It took me a few minutes to get used to the idea. Well, at least it’s cheap, I thought. Then, before I could think for much longer, I left to go find a dead king.

I spent that afternoon walking around the lakes and visiting the Qing tomb. The tomb complex itself is a cluster of buildings encircled by a wall. At the very back is a giant, nearly treeless mound of dirt topped by a single leafless tree. The king is under there. I walked the wall around the place and looked at the mound for a while, then out, where in the evening sky hundreds of kites fluttered above the trees. And above the massive iceberg floating next to the boat dock. And just above the heads of seniors. And sometimes they simply fluttered right into those heads.

Exiting the park, I spent twilight walking through stall-lined night markets, trying to find one of the city’s bar streets. I walked one area for a couple of hours, coming up empty handed, then took a cab to another part of the city. I ended in the wrong area but found a craft beer bar, charged my perpetually dead phone, and set out again on foot. The kilometers slipped by and I still hadn’t found the place I was looking for, the Fat Dragon Ale house. I stumbled upon another beer bar, this one’s walls covered in fake grass and plants, charged my phone again, and set back out.

Being Tomb Sweeping Festival, there were plenty of fires in the streets, people burning paper money and cardboard phones and such for their dead relatives, but still no Fat Dragon. I’d been looking for hours and was about to give up hope when I turned the corner to see a Fat, stubby-winged dragon hanging from the side of the building.

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The Fat Dragon.

I spent a few hours there drinking various craft beers from around China chatting with the bartender about Shenyang, about the sights and the climate and about beer. Then I talked to a pair of Chinese girls on holiday from university in Haerbin for a while longer. Then I went back to my hotel, watched some more people burn stuff in the streets, ate some 1-am hotpot, and then slept like the dead.

The next morning, I took the gleaming subway a few stops to the oldest section of the city where the Shenyang’s Imperial Palace still stands. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mukden Palace was constructed in 1625 to resemble Beijing’s Forbidden City, but the Mudken version also includes a variety of Manchurian and Tibetian architectural styles not found in Beijing. It’s also significantly smaller than the one in Beijing, so instead of an 8-hour slog, it’s easy enough to check out the halls and their exhibits on daily life, Manchurian military strategy, and the history of Manchurian craftsmanship in a handful of hours.

By early afternoon, I’d wrapped up my tour and exited onto Shenyang’s most famous shopping street, where I planned to eat at Shenyang’s most famous dumpling restaurant. Located in a hotel of the same name, Laobian Dumplings looks out over the shopping street. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in Shenyang, too, having first opened in 1829.

I took the stairs to the second floor and walked into something that felt vaguely like a hotel and also vaguely like a cafeteria, then seated myself and ordered a couple of baskets. Dumplings are one of northeast China’s specialties, and these were no exemption. Steamed in pale bamboo baskets, their sticky, paper thin skins peeled apart in the mouth a bit slower than those I’ve eaten anywhere else. Combined with white vinegar instead of the common brown stuff, and Laobian was something of a unique dumpling dining experience, which isn’t something I can often say.

With a few hours of light left to kill, I decided to walk the banks of Hun river opposite downtown. I caught a bus through downtown to the far side where I was dropped off next to the largest plastic surgery hospital I’ve ever seen. It was shaped like an ocean liner. And as big as one. The way to the river seemed to be blocked, however, until I found a rotting stairwell in a tunnel that once seem to have played host to some condemned drinking holes. It led onto a roof, which led to the the banks of the river. From there, I strolled under the just-budding willows. From there, I crossed the bridge to the business district, where I walked underneath fancy hotels and Lamborghini dealerships, past the angular and sod-covered city library.

I finally stopped on the city’s bar street where I settled into a Swiss chalet run by a real Swiss woman. Down the way – next to a sex shop vending machine – a red, white, and blue sign called customers to come in to an American-owned restaurant for “Los Angeles-style” Chinese wraps. And across the street little a bar named “Crawlers”; the flashing neon sign called it a “reptile-themed bar”.

I couldn’t get too comfortable, though. I had one place left to visit: “Little Seoul”.

Near the western white pagoda, a banner strung across the highway welcomes visitors in two sets of characters, and then the Chinese melts into Korean. For a few blocks in each direction, waitress in traditional Korean dress beckon customers to sup on kimchi and Korean stews. Soju bottles line the walls. Bar television blast out K-pop hits. Shady hotels advertise Korean “massages”.

I found a small restaurant in a back alleyway and decided to have Korean dinner in China. Only one waitress spoke good Chinese, and she led me to the back room, where to my horror I remembered three things, and realized one.

One: I’d walked nearly 40 kilometers in the last two days.
Two: My hotel didn’t have a shower.
Three: It’s typical at Korean restaurants to sit on the floor. And guests must take off their shoes.

One: The tiny room had two tables. The other one was occupied by a couple.

I slid my shoes off and looked down at my feet. My socks were crusted and shredded around the toes and heels. I walked quickly to the low table and covered my feet with a jacket. The odor wafting up from underneath it was making me suppress a gag. The couple hadn’t seemed to notice yet.

In Shenyang, it’s still legal, or least permissible, to smoke, literally, anywhere. I think that fact may have saved my dignity, and their dinner.

I ate fast. And each time one of my poor dining companions finished a cigarette, I prayed they’d soon light another.

Kingdom of the Dead

April 30, 2017 – Yinchuan, Ningxia Province

It was a holiday in China, and I hadn’t seen a single other person in more than an hour.

Add the wind blowing across the steppe, the jagged, dusty, empty mountains on the horizon and the lonely, beehive mounds in front of me, and also there, and there, out in the distance. And things were eerie. Things were weird.

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Yep. Weird.

It didn’t help the that mounds, they were the places of the dead. Places of dead for nearly a thousand years.

By the early 11th century, the Song Dynasty was crumbling. The Tangut people of western China were about to have their moment in history. In 1038, the leader of these people, people who had migrated to northwest China sometime before the 10th century, named himself emperor of Da Xia, the Xia kingdom, and their leader, Li Yuanhao, demanded the Song court recognize him as an equal.

The history gets convoluted after that, but for 190 years the kingdom that historians would come to know as the Western Xia would rule over hundreds of thousands of kilometers, including the all-important-for-trade Hexi Corridor through Gansu Province into Central Asia, and millions of people. The Western Xia would spread with them a Tibeto-Burman culture and language along with their Buddhist beliefs. In those nearly two centuries, they would build, in an area some 40 kilometers outside of Yinchuan in the foothills of the Helan Shan mountains, nine imperial tombs for their emperors and 250 separate, lesser tombs spread out across 50 square kilometers. They built these structures – walled with gatehouses and sacrificial buildings and stone animals and guardians – not unlike miniature palaces. Things to stand forever as a testament to their glory.

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Things of glory. Forever.

But sometime before 1227, and I know I’m glancing over a lot here, they got on the wrong side of the Mongols. So then in 1227, the Mongols attacked Yinchuan, executed the last of the Western Xia emperors, and completed what some historians have described as the first ever successful genocide, slaughtering nearly ever last Xia citizen in area.

And they burned the tombs in front of me to the ground.

And that’s how they’ve sat, beehive husks on the steppe beneath those empty mountains and that grey sky, swept by the wind and sand, not much different than I found them 800 years later.

Only one tomb has been fully excavated. Two others are in progress. The rest, and they’re out there somewhere, are mostly unexplored. And the complex is huge, stretching out under those mountains. Without the gas-powered carts that carry tourists to and fro, it would take a full day to get around. As it were, the carts don’t go much when you’re the only one there. So I wandered alone among the scrub around the mounds of the dead. And spent a lot of time sitting in carts, waiting to go.

Somewhere.

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