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.

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