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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

How long can it last?

How long can it last? This is a question that came up a few times today, in very different contexts. The first, and the not so fun context came with the bus ride from Guilin to the mystery destination that was Sanjiang. I had heard the roads were not so great, and for the first two-and-a-half hours I was pleased to find this report inaccurate. Then we passed the new tourist hotspot in the region, Longsheng, and after that it was like being in Sichuan all over again. Bumping this way and that. Head banging the back of the seat. Horns honking and dust clouds flying. On the bus today, there was a basket full of puppies and a goose that did not like the bumps at all, at each one honking its displeasure. There was also another peeing baby and a breast feeding mother.

At times the road was covered with a good two inches of a very find sand/dust mixture and with cars in front of us, visibility was reduced to inches. But to the sides, the view was clear, dust wafting down towards streams and rivers and gentle mountains. Fields and green and just plain nice countryside.

How long can this last? The question came the second time we had to stop for an extended period of time. The first was for a couple of bulldozers working at building a better road by clearing away stacks and stacks of rock. The second was a more serious situation. A truck had run over a motorbike. In fact, the back tire of the bike was still under the wheel of the truck when I saw it. There was a large puddle spreading from the bike, but I think it was oil and not blood as there were no corpses there and the men standing around and watching things unfold did not seem too bothered.

The big problem here was that a bus had been coming the other way (I'm guessing) when the accident occurred, and because the road is so narrow it had almost no room to pass. This is where we came in, with the bus's left front tire already in about three feet of rock and sand, and its right side, just behind the driver's side window, less than a foot away from the mirror of the truck. And somehow, somehow, after lots of inching back and forth, the bus made it by. This was a work of serious talent. I really don't think a westerner could have pulled this off (because we would not have been in the situation), but that man deserved a driving award. Unfortunately, though, while we watched him work his magic, a jackass on our side of the road, another bus driver, got impatient and pulled up until he was next to the truck and in front of the bus. Then we had to wait for him to reverse all the way back to the end of the line so that the first bus could pass all the way through. All told we must have been stuck for an hour.

I left Guilin at about 7:45 this morning and arrived at Sanjiang at about 2. I then found a room--30 RMB for a huge, I mean huge, room with 2 double beds, my own bathroom (squat toilet, but who's counting) and a desk under a wall-sized window. I then went and ate a nice stir fry with rice for 6 RMB and then headed out to see things.

Sanjiang itself is not so nice, although it is different in many ways from anywhere I've been here. It occupies two sides of a river. It is crowded and busy and there is a sense that everything here is happening a few minutes after it happens everywhere else in China. [Should feel like you're at home in Cincinnati.--ed.] I was not in the city long before I took a car out to the sight people on the bus told me I should go and see, the ChenYang bridge. The bridge is 20 km outside of town, and as we were driving, I kept thinking to myself--OK, on the way back I will get off the bus here and walk the rest of the way. No, here. No, I need to start walking here...etc. In the end, we got to the bridge and I saw that it cost 30 RMB and I decided hell, I'm not paying 30 RMB to walk on a bridge, no matter how old it is or whoever made it (this one is made with Dong minorty architecture, I think) so why not just walk until it gets dark. And that's what I did.

Now, I need to try to relate this so that I don't ramble all over the place. In order to do that, I am going to mention now that at the bridge, there were vendors and such but they were not in any way pushy. Also, there were a few guesthouses on the opposite side of the river, one of them the Dong Guesthouse, I think. It seemed like it would be a wonderful and peaceful place to stay. While there, I saw two foreigners and asked one of them where he had come from (meaning other villages or Guilin or Kaili) and he said he and his friend had been hiking in the mountains and on the roads for about 3 days. He works for a tour agency in England and he is mapping our potential tour routes for the future. He said the owner of the guesthouse had several suggested hikes already mapped out and he thought that it might cost about 20 RMB for a room. Nice, I said. Then I started walking and thinking.

The scenery is stunning. The road leading to the bridge is paved and narrow and sometimes small buses pass, and tractors, and men or women pushing wagons or walking back from the fields. Everyone smiles and waves and says hello. Everyone is willing to be photographed. The landscape is...I said stunning already and I am trying to think of a word now that might mean that something is beautiful enough to make you want to cry with happiness or with the sense of well-being and peace that washes over you just from passing through it.

The green fields are terraced and curve around mountains. Except that they are not just green. In the sunlight they are chameleons, red, gold, orange, yellow. Waterwheels line the river, turning slow slow water up and down with slight splashes and creaks. Dragonflies rest on pink flowers. Villages bend with the river and with the fields. The houses are built of dark brown wood and look as fragile as my grandfather did a few months ago when he was still in the rehab center. There are slabs of empty space where the boards do not meet, and the houses are elevated, built on pillars. The interesting thing, though, is that around the pillars are fences and the area under the house is used, I guess as some sort of storage area for goods or animals. The roads in the villages are not roads but paths, because none of them could ever afford a car. The children shout hello and run after you. The women working in the fields rise and say hello, whether they are in the shimmering, changing green, or in the dark blue green of tea or fruit fields that cover other mountain sides. Old men passing wave. They welcome you. They invite you.

And now to bring this together. My descriptions will not do it justice, and this is why now is a good time to say come and see this place before it is no longer the same. How long can it last? The guesthouses back by the bridge. The men planning future tour routes. The authentic village life. It is happening already, but it is still pretty hard to get here. But a year from now, or two. "Yangshuo junior" would be my prediction. In some village on the river, all the wooden houses will be renovated and turned into guesthouses, and bars will be put in. Trips into authentic minority villages in the countryside and lazy rides down the river. And how long before the people change along with it? Maybe this won't come to pass, but believe me...the difference between the villages around Yangshuo, and the people there, with the people here - it is visceral.

This is one of the contradictions of travel: Coming to a place that is so beautiful you want to tell others to come see it, but at the same time, you fear changes similar to those outlined in the previous paragraph, even though it is possible those changes will bring more income to the people. With more income, though, will they be as happy? My brother sent me a great article about Bhutan the other day, and how they measure happiness there... [...as opposed to economic production. Since the NYTimes article will doubtless lapse soon, here's another site on the topic.--ed.] I wonder, is there some way to make a village area into a tourist area without destroying the soul, without removing the very thing that made people come in the first place? Anyway, you are left with this dichotomous way of thought - come, but don't ruin it! And that selfish piece of yourself thinks, don't come because I want this experience, the memory of this place to myself. [Perhaps you should start masking the town names and locations...I just finished reading "The Historian" and I understand that Kostova deliberately obscures the names and locations of some of the towns and villages she describes in order to prevent fans from flocking to them.--ed.]

And there is a second contradiction. This relates to solitary travel, and is especially relevant at a time in which my girlfriend just went to a beautiful wedding and perhaps both of us are thinking about the future, and having a hard time doing so when we can't look at each other and comfort ourselves with the physical presence, the smiles and hugs and reassurances that have helped to build what I hope is a relationship that can end in marriage. My lifestyle has taken me to some places, some sceneries that are beyond what I might have imagined seeing in my childhood. More than once, many times in fact, I have found the things I am looking at bring back memories of the National Geographic magazines my parents used to store in the basement and that my friend and I used to leaf through in search of naked African women. (And while I have yet to see a naked African woman, I do suspect that embedded memories of those magazine photos inform the photos I take now). Whether the sights be old cities of Europe or Asian landscapes, I can say that I have seen some amazing things, and almost always alone. Alone. A wonderful way to see things in many ways. It is yours and yours alone. There is no pressure to explain what you are seeing, or to try to put words to it, or to listen to someone else who might prefer verbal processing. It is yours.

But then, where is someone to share it? As you stand there alone in the face of beauty, you look around for the person to stand with in silence. To share the fact of your vision, and perhaps to have someone else affirm that what you are seeing is special. And with that affirmation, build upon whatever special thing it is that you already have. This goes beyond the cliches of romantic kisses and held hands. This is something that I have long searched for answers to...what is it that drives me to travel alone, but then to pine at the most wonderful moments for someone to share it with--and this is most true now, with my misguided belief that I should make this trip on my own while my girlfriend works in Argentina.

So this is what I was thinking about while I strolled through some of the most simple and, in its simplicity, breathtaking, heartbreaking scenery in China. This is why I travel. To think and drive myself crazy.

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