Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cloud City

I woke up on National Day with a brain full of smog and a great wall of mucous obstructing my sinuses. I could hear the National Day Parade echoing in the halls, so like the rest of China, I turned on the TV and sat down in my underwear to watch it. Walt Disney meets Kim Jong-Il: a trillion dollars worth of long-range warheads scrolling past, followed by pastel papier-mâché floats overflowing with oompa-loompas, emperors and astronauts. The premier, arms crossed over his chest, appeared pleased with his people's display of military might and camp.

I napped off the rest of the day, played Mario Kart with the Mennonites for a bit, and slept off the rest of the night. The next morning, I threw a pair of underwear, some mismatched socks, and three indie rock t-shirts in a backpack and caught a taxi to the bus station. I was bound for Yunyang, a small town in Chongqing Province, whose name, I am told, means "Cloud City."

Public transportation in China has a way of making you kneel down to kiss the ground of wherever you wind up. You find solace in the bus driver's age: he couldn't have lived to see fifty if he were an incompetent driver, or a homicidal maniac. These are your thoughts as you and the person sitting next to you grow suddenly silent because your bus is passing a police car at 140 kilometers an hour on a two-lane highway - the driver is on the phone - and you're careening towards another onrushing police car, who flashes his brights but keeps on coming. The bus driver leans on the horn. Just as you start to murmur the Lord's Prayer and fondle rosary beads that aren't there, the driver veers you back into the right lane, averting death by a ramen noodle, puts down the phone and lights up a cigarette.

The bus driver was something of a comedian. He insisted that I sit next to him, which gave me a front-row seat for all his interstate acrobatics, and made me the butt of his jokes. About eighty kilometers out of Nanchong, he stopped on the side of the road to pick up his sidekick, his co-pilot, the Kevin Eubanks to his Jay Leno. Leno wisecracked, delivered aimless monologues, cursed at slow-moving vegetable trucks; Eubanks cackled and slapped the dashboard. Eventually, I had to pee in the worst way.

"Excuse me," I said to Leno. "I need to use the bathroom."
Leno cackled. Eubanks slapped the dashboard.
"It's three hours to Yunyang, laowai!" Leno shouted over the squawk of the horn. "But if you really must pee, perhaps we can stop on the side of the road."

Determined to save face, I held my water for three hours. Meanwhile, Leno kept the laughs a-coming. I couldn't understand whatever dialect it was that he was speaking, but he and Eubanks kept looking at me and cackling. The whole front half of the bus was vastly amused. At one point, he gestured towards me and said, "This laowai doesn't understand what I'm saying!" That much, of course, I could understand.

China is like Gulliver's Travels in that you can ride 200 kilometers in a bus and find yourself among lilliputians or houyhnhnms who speak an incomprehensible local dialect and live in their own incomprehensible local way. So it was with Yunyang, the Cloud City. It should perhaps be renamed Cloud City II, or Yunyang, Jr., as the original was wiped out by the floods that drowned the towns along the Yangtze after the completion of the Three Gorges Dam. Fifteen years ago, the inhabitants of Old Yunyang packed up and rerooted themselves on the side of a mountain. New Yunyang was hastily stacked in terraces, four of them, such that if you live on the top level, you can peer over the artificial canyon's edge and see Matchbox cars and ant-sized humans scurrying around on the bottom level. The sidewalks on the top terrace are pocked with drainage holes - which the Yunyang Peace Corps volunteers call "death" - that look down onto heaps of sewage-drenched garbage four stories below. Some of the deaths are grated with reebar, others are covered in Plexiglas. Children like to dance around on the deaths while their parents sip tea and play mahjongg.

Because the top level of Cloud City is way up in the stratosphere, the preferred mode of transportation in Yunyang is not the taxi, the bus, or the bicycle rickshaw: Yunyangers take the stairs. From above, the city looks like an Escher painting. There are stairwells that rise so high that if you take the steps two at a time your ears pop and if you race back down to the bottom you get the bends. There are secret stairwells that take you through a wormhole to the opposite end of town. There are stairwells that lead nowhere. There are stairwells which loop around so that you wind up precisely where you started. Yunyang holds an annual motorcycle race up the biggest stairwell in town, although I am told that it is not as thrilling as it sounds, because they only race one motorcycle at a time.

As far as I know, there are three foreigners in Yunyang. Two of them are my friends. The third was rumored to be a fat Cuban girl, but I am now informed that he is a musclebound Cameroonian man. My arrival in Cloud City was greeted with much fanfare. The university staff took me out for a night of mahjongg, Moutai, and moongazing.

I know enough mahjongg vocabulary to show my opponents that I am not ignorant of the rules or the language, but that I am a colossal idiot nonetheless. We played twenty games before dinner and I lost all of them but one. It was like Gary Kasperov, Bobby Fischer and Big Blue vs. a malfunctioning Apple IIe computer. My only triumph was a cheap one, largely owed to the dean of the university, who took control of my mahjongg tiles and slid them around the table in such a way that I came out the victor.

We sat down for dinner. I sensed that these were my kind of people. They were absurdists. The dean of the music department - a lanky fellow with an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice - drank and crooned and toasted the laowais once a minute. We talked about language: the universal language of people who cannot understand each other. Someone busted out the Moutai - a vile but expensive rice liquor that comes in little gasoline cans - and I was coerced into drinking two glasses of the stuff before I broke down and pleaded for a beer. We ate until we could eat no more, then the Dean of Music stood up and barked, in English, "Let's look at moon!" We went outside. It was raining. The Dean of Music raised a finger. "I am go get beer," he proclaimed, "so we drink beer and look at moon!" Again, these were my kind of people.

We took the stairs as high as we could and got so close to the moon that you could smell the moondust. But the moon was invisible, covered in natural and artificial Cloud City clouds. We took the stairs back down to ground level and closed out the night huddled under a nylon canopy on the side of the road. We played a drinking game that I could not understand, and even after I understood it, could not play because it involved numbers.

"Five! Fifteen! Twenty-five! Drink," the Dean of Music shouted. "Ten! Twenty! Thirty-five! Drink."

It turned out one of the guys was a tai-chi instructor, so we took to the street, foreigners and Chinese alike, and lined up in a row. A crowd of bao-bao men gathered to watch. Our sensei slinked along the sidewalk, chopping the air in slow-mo with a bottle of booze in his free hand, and we recited the mantra familiar to all English-speaking novices in the Way of the Supreme Ultimate Fist: "One big watermelon. I cut it in half. One for you. One for me. I don't want either of them."


joe f said...

well written

Keith Petit said...

Xie xie, Joe!