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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Head in the clouds

[Busy busy week, so minimal linking will be provided. Sorry for the inconvenience.--ed.] [By the way, saw The Decemberists last night at St. Louis's venerable Mississippi Nights. Excellent set. Check them out. Praise the Infanta!--ed.]

That's where I was today, up in the clouds, on a dirt and gravel sort of road in the mountains above the Miao village of Xijiang. The clouds were think and foggy and a light drizzle fell. Most of the sounds were nature based. Crickets and water. An occasional loud and sudden rustling in the brush beside the road as a bird or some four legged creature took flight. Sometimes there was no sound at all but for the drizzle falling on my umbrella and a stream running somewhere far away.

It was cold, very cold after the heat in Yangshuo and Sanjiang and Congjiang. With my shoes soaked and a sweat I knew would become cold on my back as soon as I stopped walking, I pushed on, and then back. The scenery, as is the norm in this area, stunning. The fields in the valley below again segmented with graceful curves, raised and terraced as the mountains begin their rise. Yellow and green but dim in the grayness, singular small stalks rising from muddy water. And dots on the landscape, people, women wearing bright pink tops.

The comment I have heard over and over again the last few days: Wow, how tall! The people here are short. Some of them are little more than half my height. No wonder, and I think I've mentioned this before, watching them walk under the loads they bear. These people work hard.

From my perspective as one who is coming and going, there is something wonderful in watching them go to the fields, and then return with huge buckets bending the stick over their shoulder, weighed down with grass stalks. There is something special and basic about seeing a group of women hunched over in the field as 20-30 foot high stacks of dried grass rise above them, all around. Looking out at the fields with these rising is a bit like looking out over Prague from up on the hills near the castle, out over all the church spires rising above the skyline. I was told these stacks, which also resemble an unwrapped Tootsie roll cut in half and stood up by the middle part, are collected and later will be used to feed the pigs.

I stayed in Xijiang last night (not to be confused with the more famous Xijiang that is in Yunnan Province and is famed as one of the possible locations of Shangri-La). [Oops. Hope I didn't mistakenly link to that one in previous posts!--ed.] The town is composed almost in whole of the wooden houses I have been writing about so much of late. There are two portions of the town, or rather two main bunching of these houses, each spilling down hillsides and looking, with the black rooftops jumbling together, not unlike a large box of tinker toys has been tipped over, with some of the toys still in the box. There is one main road running through the town, a wide cobblestone road lined by shops in rectangular two story wood buildings. Shops selling seeds or clothes, or tourist goods, Miao-made silvers and batik patterned hangings. Also Miao fashions. I even saw a Chiang Mai shirt in one of the shops. There is a basketball court next to the road and even in the rain there were always at least a few kids shooting around.

I stayed in one of the jumbled houses, getting to it by walking on a narrow cement path cutting between the houses, and up stairs that lead up the hill. Water running down a narrow gutter past the houses. Chickens walking loose, as always. The house I stayed in is, I think, properly called a long house. I stayed in a room near the front entrance. The door from my room led into another room, this one with a few couches and a counter with water and glasses. This led, without a partition, into the family room, which had two wood couches, a coffee table, two wooden seats, and a TV. This led, without partition, into the dining area, which had a table, and some low wooden stools. This led into a room which I guess is a bit of a storage area. There was a bedroom partitioned off to the left, and in the far right hand corner, a wooden ladder leading up to something above. This morning there was a big wide basket full of red peppers and two others with things that I can't name. At last is the kitchen, with two sinks (in one of which were swimming fish to be eaten later), and a stove with a huge wok. All the light was provided by a single exposed bulb in the middle of each room (not counting, of course, the TV).

It was interesting, going to bed at 10 last night, hearing the front door squeak in a murderous way as it was opened by someone going to the bathroom. Below me a pig snuffling and snoring. Waking in the morning to cocks crowing all over the village. Going to the bathroom in a WC built into the area under the house, the empty space created by the high wooden supports. There was a screened window meaning that as the hosts went to feed the pigs they could with ease peek down and see me squatting there, or hear my gassy explosions, caused by the spicy and much fried meal we enjoyed last night.It is strange squatting over a toilet while listening to a huge pig slopping around on the other side of the wall.

Now I am in Kaili, with more plans laid to waste by unexpected turns of fortune. There was a bus scheduled to go straight from Xijiang to Kaili at 2. I was sitting on the bus reading my book and waiting to go when another guy came on the bus and said, nope, sorry, this bus isn't going to go because no one is on it. What about me? I said. Sorry, not enough people. So, muttering curses not quite under my breath and more than a little peeved, I switched busses and then waited ten minutes past the time that one was supposed to start and returned to Leishan, which is the town I came to Xijiang from.

Now, why was I peeved this time? Well, because going back to Leishan meant three things, at least: 1. Having to by one more bus ticket (albeit only 8 RMB) 2. Adding an hour and a half of time to my travels, as it takes an hour-and-a-half to go from Xijiang straight to Kaili, and also an hour-and-a-half to go to Leishan. Meaning, instead of taking one one-and-a-half-hour trip, I make one and then 3. wait an extra half hour for the bus from Leishan to go to Kaili. SO what should have been 1.5 hours became four, and then as a result of all of this, 4. by the time I arrive in Kaili, the last bus to Chong'an Jiang, my last intended destination on this trip through villages has already gone.

So there goes that. I bought a train ticket on to Kunming instead, which will leave tomorrow night. This is what I had planned to do anyway, but I had hoped to sleep in Chong'an Jiang and hike there tomorrow before returning at night. I suppose I could still go there in the morning, a two-hour bus ride, and be back in time for my train, but I am thinking that four hours of bussing before a 15-hour train ride may not be what I need...esp. with a market day here tomorrow.

So now, on to Kunming, By Monday morning I will be there, and by the afternoon I will be applying for a visa to Myanmar. If all goes according to plan (which means I really have no idea what will happen) I should have that by Thursday, and then it will be time to apply for my second visa extension for China, which will be the official beginning of the last leg of my China tour, with one month spent in Yunnan. This is the plan. Anyone want to guess at what might go wrong with this?

Stay tuned.

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