Here is Chapter Eight of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book. We'll publish each chapter over the course of the year (Track down previous chapters here). You can order the entire book direct from EarthPhotos Publishing, or at Amazon.com. Photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the China Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.
Kiosk keepers huddled under strings of bare bulbs. An ancient pagoda perched high up on the hill across the river. Fruit and vegetable vendors and a magazine stand stood open at nine o’clock at night. Around a bend in the road, storefronts set sample dishes on the sidewalk, just out of the rain.
A wet old man beckoned me in. We didn't speak a word in common except “OK” and “bye bye.” I drank a couple of big tall green bottles of beer I couldn't read and I bought a bottle of something he thought I should buy. It was some clear elixir he kept pouring and we kept toasting. Mostly we sat in his store and stared into the fog.
One side of Guilin was shiny, the other just rubble. Five years before, Guilin tore down the buildings on the whole west side of Zhongshan Road and rebuilt them all. Now they were doing the same thing on the east side.
A bed careened by, balanced on a bicycle. Pointy-nosed little three-wheeled machines sputtered along, almost but not quite trucks. Water buffalo halted traffic and chewed the roadside, right in town. Guilin, somehow, was dusty even in the rain.
Morning came dreary, misty and clammy, with no hope of the weather clearing. We’d arranged a boat trip starting at the nearby town of Zhujiang. Our minder was named Long, our driver was Chang, and our Toyota Crown sedan stifled warm inside.
Speed limit signs hung above the road. To one side was an orange orchard with a collective housing block for the farmers. Close to Zhujiang the pavement turned to six-sided blocks that fit together like the runways at Rinas airport in Tirana, Albania.
That fit. For a time in the 1960’s, China was Albania's only ally in the world.
Two boats idled at the dock – both bright red with yellow trim. Colored dragons stretched the length of each side of the boats.
Inside, thin orange curtains, with red, blue, pink and yellow bright plastic moulding ringed the cabin, all trimmed with multi-colored Christmas-type lights. A Beijing brand TV stood at the front, hiding our smoking pilot and presenting a videotaped tour in Chinese.
Along each side, seven sets of four by four airline-type seats faced one another with a long wooden table in between each set, topped by a yellow tablecloth on which sat teacups with tops, oranges, hot towels, packages of nuts, a rose in a vase and toothpicks. A cadre of stewardesses served tea, coffee and Tsing Tao beer.
Three smoking Japanese fellows sat across looking back at us as we pulled out into the mist. One owned a shop near Tokyo. He promised our polaroid would hang on the wall of his restaurant.
This guy practiced Chi Kung (or qigong), and had for 20 years. He’d hold his hands around yours, or at your temples and concentrate, and you'd feel hot and begin to tingle. He put his hands on either side of my head and it really worked. Mirja felt it, too.
Roger Pan, beside Mirja in the window seat, was Chinese/Canadian from Toronto. He explained that the symbol "kung" in Chinese means sort of "the art of" and "chi," like in "tai chi," is loosely "energy.”
He estimated that you need to memorize about 5000 Chinese characters to read properly. Since they're characters, not an alphabet in which letters have individual sounds, you can't sound 'em out. You either know 'em or you don't.
Roger was a good kid, vaguely related to then New York Times reporter Sheryl WuDunn. Traveling alone, he'd left his onward air tickets on the seat of a cab somewhere, so he wasn't sure when he could leave.
The Lijiang River (Li) meanders 437 kilometers through Guilin, Yangshuo, Pingle and Wuzhou. Along its banks, the famous limestone peaks forever immortalized by Chinese painters rise off the valley floor in the most unlikely shapes. Clouds played with the tops of the peaks. Standing on the upper deck, I tried to decide whether they were beautiful or just very very strange. The whole world was muted in mild grays, greens and blues.
The Li River.
The Li ran low and clear enough to see that sometimes it was only three or four feet deep. There was a brisk headwind. On the upper deck you had to turn your collar up and stuff your hands deeper into your pockets.
A billion and a half people in China and nothing on these riverbanks except fishermen and evil, dark cormorants, trained to plunge into the water, grab fish, surface, and spit 'em back at their masters. And one lonely man in a boat, poling along with the current, fishing seaweed from the riverbed.
Working men, in their pointy round straw hats, walked down through rice paddies with poles across their backs supporting two baskets. They piled dirt down at the water's edge.
Hot pot is sort of a fondue in which lots of raw, formerly-living things are piled around a boiling electric urn and dumped in a little bit at a time. At our table this was handled by a Japanese/Canadian/Finnish committee of five.
Occasionally someone would toss in some bok choy or noodles. Now and then somebody would pluck stuff out with spoon or chopsticks and chow down. Convivial eating went on for an hour.
The route passed sights such as "five tigers catch a goat," "yearning for husband's return rock," and "an old man push a mill." Later, bamboo began to appear among the Osmanthus trees. Some of it grew to be fist-sized and 30 feet tall.
It looked like all 20,000 in the village of Yangshuo were bicycling by just as we put out. Chang and his Toyota arrived from Zhujiang. He and Long and Mirja and I packed up and headed back north 80 kilometers to Guilin.
Chang stopped to pay a toll. Long explained, "This is special road from Yangshuo to Guilin."
She was indoctrinated. Went to university at Nanjing. It was easy to get into the language program, she said – lack of demand. So she took English and got her job on graduation. Said she could go abroad, but didn’t have the money. Had a nine year old daughter. Mirja asked about the one-child policy.
"People have accepted this."
Water buffaloes, rice paddies and orange groves passed outside. Roadside stalls peddled identical stacks of pomilons, yellow, big as a grapefruit at the bottom and shaped like a pear. Long said they taste like oranges but "not so juicy."
Guilin farmers still plowed by hand with oxen. Long was disarming: "Almost all farmers have cattle because before they plant they need to plow." Of course.
All manner of two, three and four wheel vehicles traversed the "special road" with us, honking and ringing their bells and spewing exhaust.
China burned cheap coal. You could smell it, and car exhaust, through the walls, on your clothes, everywhere. It was cold and damn wet. There was one time zone in China, Beijing time, and in Guilin it got dark about six o’clock.
Mirja and I bought one of Mao’s Little Red Books, dated 1969 with Mao in color, on a Sunday night stroll around town. Took a turn around Elephant Trunk Hill, past an outdoor dance hall and blaring skating rink, and into a department store with escalators up, but not down.
A camera store with Aiwa and Ricoh point and shoots, plus brands like Tomoa, Xinon and Benson, and a huge Yanwu boombox. Dropped a coin in a vending machine, which gave us a calendar with Li Min on the other side. He's a handsome young singer from Hong Kong.
Here at the vending machine we met Li Huan. English student, wanted to practice English, the usual premise, but he was sweet, with bushy thick hair and thick glasses. He lived with his mom and dad in a three room flat. His dad was retired from the local government theatre – he was an artist. He painted scenery for plays.
Li complained about the way you have to buy your way out of the country. He said you had to pay the government 3600 yuan to go to Hong Kong. That was then $437.
Along with Li, we walked in the dark back toward our hotel, down a rough, torn up street. We gave Li 10 yuan to buy a pomilon. They wanted 20 from us. He went alone ahead, got it. Said he talked the vendor down from 16.
Here was a kiosk with snake wine for 60 yuan. The whole snake was inside.
We invited Li in to "Guilin Tea Guiture Association Longlife Tea House." Nobody was there but us. Loud sitar music wailed incongruously. Mirja and I enjoyed Carlsbergs, Li had a Sprite, and the beautiful young waitress with the dazzling smile stood right beside us the whole time we were in there.
You never know where you are in provincial Chinese cities because there's never a town plan. A warehouse district next door to some food stalls, a wedding dress store, a pool hall, the hospital. Everything's packed so tightly you just roll up and stop, and you hop out because you must be somewhere. Then you find out where you are.
Inside the "Traditional Chinese Medicine Hall of Attached Hospital to Guilin Medical College" a girl in white immediately escorted Mirja, Long and me to seats alone in a small, dusty lecture room, bare except for tables and chairs, a one-step platform for the teacher, and an anatomy chart in Chinese.
Dr. Mung walked in and Long walked out. Dr. Mung began his traditional medicine lecture, to just the two of us. He traveled elliptically for a while around the basic yin-yang concept, which says yin is blood and yang is energy and the two must be kept in balance and we do this with herbs and acupuncture.
My crest fell (shoulda fallen sooner) as he passed us a list of 26 pills, liniments and cremes available from the Traditional Chinese Medicine Hall, and proceeded to list all 26 from memory, including their indications and usages.
Old Dr. Mung stood there on his step in his dirty white coat with the pullover sweater underneath and showed us the testimonial letters he'd received. The door swung open and two white-coated female assistants carried in a meter-long thick chain, heated to almost glow.
A wild man followed, touched a scrap of paper to the chain until it went aflame, then intentionally burned the palm of his hand on the chain and in one movement was met by Dr. Mung, who was ready with #8, Cream for Burns and Scalds. He rubbed it into the wild man's palm, even as the wild man reached his seat against the wall opposite the door. All this happened in seconds.
Next Dr. Mung introduced the hospital's Chi Kung expert. The door swung open again. Balls of dust scudded across the medical college's floor. Mr. Expert did some moves to get his electricity centered, plugged in two probes to the 220 volt wall and held 'em.
Dr. Mung held a volt/ohm meter to Mr. Expert at several places and it's needle swung. Mr. Expert was Mr. Electricity. He touched Mirja and me each between our closed eyes and we both could see a flicker of light.
He held either end of the wires to a light bulb and it lit. Now the wild man got up and showed us his palm. The miracle cream had worked. The wild man left.
Mr. Expert now offered us "free treatment" of anything chronic using "bio-electrical acupuncture treatment." So Mirja had her shoulder tension and I had my lower back pain treated, each by our holding one electrical probe, Mr. Expert holding the other and poking the affected areas, causing a tingle.
Dr. Mung's Clinic.
Now the first girl was back with bottles of pills, #2 and #16 for me, only 100 yuan each for a month's treatment, more for Mirja, putting them in a bag and assuring us, "Credit card is ok."
We left with no pills, cremes or liniments, and with Dr. Mung, Mr. Expert and the girl disappointed.
Fubo hill is one of those karst Guilin oddities, a little round hill that rises out of nowhere. You could easily jog all the way around it in a minute. Mirja and I clambered the 325 steps up and shared a view of Guilin with the gnats.
They’d tell you Guilin was really new to the tourism game – that ten years before it was a backwater. From the top of Fubo Hill, it still was. Gritty, low buildings. Smoke from coal fires. But the surrounding hills, the reason to be in Guilin in the first place, were as compelling and utterly strange as you’ll see.
On the last afternoon, still damp and gray and clammy, we set out down the river road toward Fubo hill, then plunged left into the city. Most of the televisions you'd see in stores were black and white. Changan minivans. Liuzhou Disai taxis. One "Za Stava," Russian.
Red is China’s national color officially and in fact. Young professional Guilin women would bicycle by, smartly turned out in slacks and a bright red blazer.
You couldn't be the next big-time Chinese tourist town without a gleaming new department store, and the Wang Cheng department store was just that. Here you had escalators that went both up and down. All the mannequins looked Western.
I bought cigarettes to use for tips, fifty cents a pack for Viceroy.
On the street, two students with some English were enchanted by Mirja and eventually persuaded us to their studio ("three minute walk") to meet their teacher. Boy #1 flirted with Mirja. Boy #2 and I walked (not too far) behind.
"What you think of Chinese people?"
“I think Chinese people are happy and they smile a lot.”
They agreed but said that was only here in south China. In north China, especially Beijing, they were stoic.
Gravely, boy number two confided, "They're too Communist."
They were art students. Their teacher, in blue-jeans, affable and just a kid, showed us around the studio. Took him six months to paint a six meter scroll of a traditional Chinese scene. His students called him the Picasso of China because of his style, but for sale he painted the Guilin scenes for sale everywhere.
Too bad everybody asked you to buy. In this case the students did the soft-selling, the teacher stayed above the fray, and the prices dropped from the 800 yuan in the art college store to 300.
We found a local bar and sat just inside a restaurant door. A young fellow who had good English, Chen, followed us in off the street.
Chen asked us, "Do you want to keep talking to me?"
Such open, unabashed directness. We laughed and told him to pull up a chair.
He helped us order five-Yuan beers (eight was a dollar) in big green, no-name bottles.
The three waitresses stood transfixed before a soap opera that was way too loud. Color TV. Chen said it must have cost 3000 yuan. Typical pay: 600 yuan a month.
He asked us incredulously, he'd heard this somewhere, "In U.S., can you earn four thousand dollars a month?"
I nodded, solemnly.
Chen thought being a doctor wasn’t really a great job in China. It paid in the middle. You could really clean up working as an interpreter, taxi driver, in a joint venture, or, the ultimate, as an "individual businessman."
Live fish swam in plastic buckets on the floor by the door. Two foot-tall, owl-like birds called Cat Eyes stared morosely through a cage beside the fish. They were for dinner. Another flapped listlessly on a newspaper on the floor, too near death to get up. The whole thing was wrenching and you wanted to kill the broken one in the name of humanity.
Chen screwed up the courage to ask us to come meet his family, which meant come buy something.
We told him no, but if he wanted to bring something for us to see we'd wait fifteen minutes. He came back with a "gift" of calligraphy he said he'd painted himself. He translated it for us and I immediately forgot.
It just so happened this "gift" was rolled into a scroll containing an ink-on-rice-paper painting of Guilin scenery which he said he'd painted himself and suggested that some people would pay 300 yuan for it.
I told him no.
He asked if we'd like to have it at any price.
I said we'd feel bad to suggest 100 yuan because I knew it should cost more than that so we'd better not buy it at all. He asked for 150 and I told him no. But then, what the hell, okay. They just wear you down. 150.
Chen bid us goodbye with a spring in his step and a quarter of his monthly pay stuck down his pants, not so far from being an "individual businessman" himself, and we left with original Guilin art for twenty bucks.
Long was, as ever, full of tight-lipped cheer. It was her job. After she got us checked in for our flight to Shanghai and helped us pay the 50 yuan departure tax we tipped her and quickly it was Long, gone.
Third world architects determine the amount of light needed for a space, then halve it. Yellow lights in the ceiling solved nothing. Incense burned in the toilet. Noodles were eaten. A big red banner hung across the hall. The screen showed flights to Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Chongqing and Xiamen.
In the drab domestic departures terminal, yo
u wore your coat. There were gates 1, 2 and 3. No matter which gate you went through you’d come out at the same place on the other side and walk to your plane.
Our plane rolled down the runway and into the air 15 minutes early. Like good Communists striving for order, they seated passengers from the front straight back. That left the last two-thirds of the plane empty.
Before you knew it you could see how dark rural China was at night. Later the moon painted white the clouds below. The whole flight, not a word from the cockpit. We slumped into our bright red (what else?) seats.
They apparently had Chinese people believing all the in-flight service they needed was some box of orange drink. But Mirja was in no mood for that and boldly asked for two cans of Shanghai Beer, and they brought them right out.