I have the tendency to choose a place, arrive, and THEN think about what to do with myself and what to see. So it was with Hunan, my final excursion before returning to Hangzhou for work. Except this time, I was with 2 other people, a former student and her friend, and though they said they also liked to wander around old cities, I could hear it in their question: “What will we do?” And it occured to me that not all places are like Dali, and not all people enjoy getting lost like I do. (Which is a side effect of getting lost a lot–you either come to love it, or you unravel).
“Let’s just walk around the river…” I said, not too keen on poking every tourist shop in the old town, not wanting to climb a “mountain” after the Tiger Leaping Gorge, and not wanting to spend money on a temple.
So we walked along the river in Fenghuang, occasionally stopping to eat some of the snacks. I marvelled the food concoctions: pig heads, spices, shrimp pancakes, rice balls, you name it. And then we decided to cross the river like a needle going through fabric–twisting along an ornate bridge bedecked with engravings and vendors selling small trinkets, and then wobbling along a wooden slat going over calm waters, and then hopping along pieces of concrete sticking up through pulsing waves. If I remember anything about Fenghuang, it will not be the bargaining for cheap things outside of shops. It will be the act of crossing bridges and looking back to see where my feet had gone.
It’s a city known for the phoenix, which allegedly stands for rebirth. But with all of the bridges and all of the changes between them, I feel that it should be known for transition. For being able to start on one end and walk over to the other without falling in. For knowing that journeys start and end and that no two banks are the same. For standing still and letting each step forward conquer the rushing water below.
I didn’t go to Baisha to drink tea with a man, his horse, and a sketch artist. I’m not actually sure why I went at all, to be honest. But there was something in the clear blue sky that day, something in the sigh of the mountain that made me hop onto the public bus and go to the village 30 minutes from Lijiang.
It was quiet. Not the eerie kind, but the kind that exists without needing explanation. The kind that nestles between moments effortlessly, and doesn’t get crumpled up in the tinny sounds of CDs playing drum music that is Old Town Lijiang. There were a few stands displaying antiques, some small restaurants, and a Dr. Ho (whom I mistook for Dr. Who when the people at the hostel told me about him, whoops). And the people living there were not worn from the parade of tourists, instead lingering to chat with me, ask me where I was from, explain some of the things they had in front of them, and tell me what I needed to see.
Which is how the man with the horse found me, admiring the bells tinkling in the air. He asked me the usual questions, and after I answered them and asked him some of my own, he said he was about to go have tea in his friend’s yard and would like me to come. His horse was carrying a Chinese tourist with a sketchpad. Together, the three of us went to his friend’s courtyard, which had several date trees and patches of crops peeking up through the dirt around the door to the home. We sat in the sun around a short table, and as the hours passed, we drank tea, met somewhere in the middle with language, and let the unobstructed silence exist without interruption. He was a horse man with stunning calligraphy skills. The sketchbook artist had drawn pictures of Lijiang and showed them to me with pride. Eventually, the tea dwindled down and we had to go our separate ways, me to go visit Dr. Ho, them to the small village Shihou.
It wasn’t the best tea I had, but that’s never really the point of an invitation, is it?
China is now a current of moving bodies, converging and separating in train stations, airports, and buses–all weighed down by canvas shopping bags full of apples and other treats to give family members. They all jockey together, up along the aisles, hushing children not happy about long journeys, and scrunching into seats while toys whir and buzz. When entering the train station, in fact, it’s like a sports arena, each person clumping into the next, all the way up to the metal barriers leading to the cars and craning their necks to see if the time for departure and then arrival will come any sooner.
It’s all for one thing, one time of the year that is celebrated, exalted, and then stowed away for the next year to embrace all over again–Spring Festival. This, the time of year when the entire country flips on its head to be with their family, crossing the country, switching trains and planes and whatever is necessary to get there. It’s simultaneously bothersome in terms of travel, but also beautiful in a way to see people converge and stay together in interlocked arms as they are led to a familiar home with treats, smiles, and red lanterns dangling in the air.
And the exciting thing is that I get to be a part of it. As of tomorrow, I will be on my way to Yangzhou to spend Spring Festival with my not-blood-relative family, but the one I got sort of adopted into. Then onto another family, my student’s in Yiwu. And somewhere in the middle, somewhere amid the dumplings, gifts, and firecrackers, Spring Festival will come alive and it will include me in the afterglow of candles lit in the dark of the dawning new year.
And for that moment, China will stop moving. If for a moment.