We got up early the next day and got on a bus to Tiger Leaping Gorge. We spent three hours on the bus riding through the Yunnan countryside, and along the way got acquainted with the other foreigners who were with us. They turned out to be a great bunch: a young English couple who were in the middle of a six-month trip through Asia, and a couple who had come from Spain to travel—one American guy who had been living in Spain for four years and was fluent in Spanish, and his wife, a very warm Spanish lady whose face lit up with an amazing smile whenever anybody spoke with her.
Along the way I asked the English couple a question that had been nagging on my mind ever since the first time I met someone who was doing a World Tour or equivalent, like they were doing—a trip that lasted months on end with no stops at home to rest and recuperate and let your feet settle back on the ground: How do you keep from getting completely exhausted?
This question has particular significance for me because traveling, while one of the most stimulating things I’ve found on this earth to do, completely takes it out of me. It’s not only physically tiring, but deeply emotionally draining. This, for me, is just because of the constant movement and change: picking yourself up every few days, or week, or few weeks, and getting on a bus or train or plane to a new part of the world—I love it, but after a couple of weeks I tend to get weirdly moody and excitable, and to have a tendency to break down. I find that this is usually a delayed reaction: when I have to deal with something stressful while traveling, I usually have little emotional reaction while the thing is going on, but a day or two later when I have a minute to myself, I feel totally adrift. This happens especially when I meet someone and travel with them for a day or two or longer, and then split off and go back on my own. The transition can be abrupt and very unsettling.
And when I asked my question I could tell that I wasn’t alone in this feeling, because the English folks knew exactly what I was talking about and the girlfriend, Anne, answered without blinking: “We take days off,” she said. “Every so often along the way, when we find some particularly nice hotel or beach or something, we’ll just stay in that place for a few days and not do anything, not go anywhere except maybe to eat. We’ll just read our books or write in our journals or whatever….sometimes you feel guilty that you’re not out there seeing stuff, like if you miss some waterfall or something, but then you just tell yourself, ‘Well, I saw 20 waterfalls yesterday, so it’s not a big deal…’”
This idea might have been perfectly obvious to anyone else, but I had never really thought about taking “days off” while actually vacationing around China. But I liked the idea, and after Tiger Leaping Gorge when we got back to Lijiang for the second time, we put it to good use.
But we were still approaching Tiger Leaping Gorge—this would not be a “day off”, although it would be the nicest day of our whole month-long adventure. When we arrived at Jane’s Hostel at the trailhead I realized that I hadn’t actually checked the guidebook at all, so I asked the others where to go from here, because they looked like they knew what they were doing. They explained that we could leave our bags at the hostel, start the trek, and then when we arrived at the other end a bus would bring us back by road to this very hostel to pick up our stuff.
Since Jess and I had left our bags back in Lijiang and were carrying small daypacks, we didn’t have to deal with this, but we grabbed a bite to eat at Jane’s (gross food, lots of flies, also other reviews online say the rooms are nasty) and then started the hike.
We walked for about 45 minutes up a hill that afforded pretty views down into the valley below us, corn and other vegetables planted in various spots along the mountainside, and at the bottom a lazy brown river which we would be following for the next two days.
After an hour we rested at a little store along the trail, and started talking to a Swiss guy who had been traveling solo for six months all over the world. I asked him how long he was going to carry on, and he shrugged.
“I dunno; it depends on when I run out of money,” he said, as if the detail couldn’t matter less to him.
He explained that when his money was gone he was going to go to Australia to work for a while—I learned on this trip that Australia has a program that Americans can also participate in which allows you to work there for a year at any job you can find, kind of a work-travel thing—and then he would head home. After a few minutes, we all got up and started the hike again, and the Swiss guy charged ahead. That was when we saw the mountains along the gorge for the first time.
The straight stone faces of the mountains were dramatic in all this peaceful greenery, and as soon as I set eyes on them I felt all the stress of the last year in China melt away. This was going to be a good hike. After a couple more hours Jess and I set nicely into the rhythm of walking, and eventually we neared the “28 bends”, a steepish switchbacked part of the trail.
It was here that I saw, for the first time, real marijuana in China.
Before the steep 28 bends started there was a little stand on the trailside, with a few young Chinese guys milling about and an old lady standing behind the counter. I was hot and sweaty so didn’t take the time to look around; I homed in on the cooler.
“How much is the water?” I asked.
“Eight for a big one, five for a small one,” the old lady answered in Chinese.
“Are you gonna have water?” I asked Jess, and she replied in the affirmative.
“I’ll have a big one,” I told the old lady in Chinese. “Are they cold?” I asked.
“Yes, yes, they’re cold,” she said, and reached down into the cooler.
She pulled up the water and handed it to me.
“Eight yuan, right?”
“Yes, eight yuan,” she said.
Then, as I was pulling a five and three ones from my wallet, the old lady said a word that I had never heard before.
There was a silence after she said it. It had sounded a little like meiyou ah na. My brain, which had become accustomed to working extra hard to decipher meaning from southwestern Chinese peoples’ strange tones and accents, began scanning it for some meaning in Chinese. The first part definitely seemed like the word méiyǒu, which meant “don’t have” or “no”; but the second half made no sense. A na? It could be a word. Those two syllables appear in Chinese, but they didn’t make sense together.
I decided to ignore it, since whatever she said couldn’t have been that important (I had already got the water, which was what I wanted), when my cousin, standing just behind me, said this:
“Ganja, something for you to smoke to get relaxed in the hills.”
“What?” I asked, and turned.
“They’re selling marijuana here,” she said. “Look at this little sign.”
“It’s fake,” I said. This was my knee-jerk reaction to this news: I had encountered “pot” in China before, but it was all just dried herbs. I never expected to see real marijuana in China.
Then another voice piped up.
“No, it’s not fake,” a man’s voice, German accented, said. “It’s total shit, but it’s real.”
I looked around and saw the Swiss guy who we’d been sharing the trail with all day.
“How do you know?” I asked
“Because I smoke it,” he said.
“You mean you’ve smoked this weed or you smoke back in your home?”
“Back in my home, but I know.”
This seemed impossible to me: here of all places, why would they have pot? It made sense in the huge cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen, but up in these mountains?
But it was real. I picked up a bag and sniffed it, and it was definitely pot. It was extremely heavy with seeds and dried and shredded poorly, and there was little visible evidence of the putrid and sticky crystals that represent heavy THC content in pot in the U.S. But it was pot. I was awestruck, knowing that China has very strict penalties for dealing drugs, to find it so obviously for sale even in the mountains. Only two years ago an Englishman was put to death in China for carrying 4 kilograms of heroin into an airport in northwest China. Chinese people are executed with fair regularity for drug dealing. But here it was, in Yunnan, out in the open.
The Swiss guy said that in some of the small towns around Lijiang—Dali and Shaxi—it was everywhere, usually offered by little old ladies like this one, who had been taught two English words: “ganja” and “marijuana”. This seemed to lead him to believe that pot is common in China, but that’s a false notion.
Virtually every Chinese I had ever met had only a very vague notion of what pot was, and had certainly never seen it except in Western movies.
Based on the fact that these ladies knew English slang terms for pot, it was clear that they were part of an operation that produced and sold weed throughout this area, and they were just at the retail end of things. Somebody higher up had clearly studied English, maybe been abroad. And the fact that they had a market made sense: I couldn’t imagine Chinese tourists buying this stuff, but there were a lot of foreigners touring through this area, and foreigners are easy to spot anywhere in China.
Leaving the weed behind but taking the water, Jess and I continued up the trail and a few hours later, after a relatively tough hike through the “28 bends”, we arrived at the Tea Horse Hostel, a courtyard-style building set just off the trail perched at the top of the gorge, a thin dirt road leading up to it from the river far below us, which was presumably how they got food and other goods up to the hostel.
The Tea Horse was very simple—you could even say rustic—but that was fine for us after spending five or six hours on the trail. Behind the hostel was a cement patio with an uninhibited view of the mountains, and there we found our American-Spanish friends enjoying beers in the late-afternoon sunshine. There was another hostel an hour or so down the trail, but the sight of cold beer incapacitated me. It was decided. We would stay here for the night.
The beds were cheap—25 yuan, just north of three dollars for a night—and the food was decent. The company was better. The group we had shared the van with coming out here, the English folks, the Spanish-American folks, and us, shared a table and started telling stories and drinking beers. Jess seemed to be having a good time and seemed to take to the wonderful Spanish woman and the American guy who had mastered the language she had struggled with in high school. A couple of guys joined us—a Briton who had been living in Paris for several years, and his darkly handsome Moldovan boyfriend, who was also in Paris. Between us we had more than half a dozen languages: The American guy spoke English and Spanish; his wife of course spoke both as well; the English guy spoke French, his boyfriend spoke English, French, Russian and Moldovan; and I spoke Chinese; and with the Swiss guy, who joined us briefly, we had at least German and maybe another language or two as well.
Point being that it was an interesting group and we had a lot of stories. So we drank and talked until 1 a.m. Somewhere around that time I got a laugh with my best China drinking story: the one about getting so drunk that my decision-making skills were sufficiently impaired that I actually stepped into the doorway of a “red-light parlor” with a Chinese friend of mine, but then got a hold of myself and then put the kibosh on that idea, went back to my friend’s house with him (the buses had stopped running so I couldn’t get back home) and proceeded to throw up on everything. This was shortly after I arrived in China, before I learned how to keep control in the new drinking culture. Always good for a laugh.
At some point I got up to grab another beer and walked by a table of people conversing with one of the hostel girls, and this is what I overheard:
One of the foreigners said: “Are you sure it’s legal in China?”
And the hostel girl said: “Yes.”
“I mean, legal, you know what legal means?”
“I think so…” she said.
And, knowing what they were talking about, and since I had had two beers and was now willing to interrupt anyone’s conversation, I interjected as I walked past: “No, it’s definitely not legal,” and then, for good measure, I added: “Kěndìng shì bùhéfǎ de.”
“That’s what I thought,” the foreigner said. “How do you say marijuana in Chinese?”
“Dàmá,” I said.
And from the hostel girl: “Ohhh…” A sound of sudden recognition.
I went and got my beer.
Back at the patio, the English and Moldovan guy told a story from that day: Somewhere along the trail at Tiger Leaping Gorge they had come across a “sightseeing” spot, a little spur trail, with a sign in front saying you had to pay something like 8 yuan to go down it, and an old Chinese lady collecting money. Since we were in the middle of the woods and it seemed like you shouldn’t have to pay some random old lady to go down a public trail, and on top of that since we had paid about 50 yuan to get into this scenic area in the first place, the English and Moldovan guy had ignored her and just walked on past. So she had done the following: hissed, spit in their faces, threw rocks in their direction (without hitting them) and brandished a knife at them (without stabbing). They were clearly traumatized by the encounter, and I was mystified. Apparently anything is possible in Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Some time, late at night, we all went to bed. And we all seemed to sleep well. And early in the morning Jess and I got up and started our walk. The sky was clearer than it almost ever is in China and the air was cool, perfect for a walk. We spent the day on the trail and hardly saw anyone. The English couple were a half hour ahead of us but we only saw them occasionally in the distance. It was the rarest thing in China: peace, serenity, silence. And for that reason it was perfect. Jess seemed to love it too, but perhaps it was especially wonderful for me, having such little chance in China to experience such blissful quiet and emptiness. China is large, and living and working in the east, you rarely find yourself so literally alone (although it’s not hard to feel alone). I loved it.
Around mid-afternoon we arrived at the “end” of the hike (although we could and should have continued on to Walnut Grove on a cliff-trail by the riverside, had we only known…) at a place called Tina’s Guesthouse. There we bought our bus tickets back to Lijiang and rested, pretty exhausted after the day’s hike. It had begun to rain near the end of our hike and on the road back to Lijiang Jess and I sat mostly in silence, listening to part of an episode of This American Life on my iPod. After arriving back in Lijiang, we were both tired from the hike.
So we took a day off. That evening we just lounged around, and the next day we just lounged around, too. Our trains were leaving at 9:30 that night, and we spent the whole day inside the hostel. Jess spent her time on the computer and I spent mine reading and chatting with other people in the hostel. And it was nice. And we were leaving at 9:30 p.m.. And we ate a wonderful family-style dinner that evening at the hostel with the employees. And we had a nice chat with them. And they explained that Dali and Shaxi are better than Lijiang; even one of the girls from Lijiang said so. And then I hung out some underwear to dry in the laundry room. And I chatted with a French girl named Emilie for a while in the hostel; she had been studying medicine in Yunnan. And she was nice. And she was very smart and interesting. And she seemed really nice. And she was quite good looking. And I asked if she wanted to watch a movie and she said yes. And she picked a movie and I turned on the TV and she started curling up on a blanket in front of the TV that could not possibly be big enough for us to sit on together without being very close. And it was obvious that she was expecting me to sit on the blanket. And it was 6:45, and we had almost three hours until our train would leave, and it was so nice, until I checked our tickets again and realized that I had read our tickets wrong that morning and that we were leaving at 7:30, not 9:30.
So we grabbed our stuff, and I said goodbye to Emilie (my face probably completely shattered) and we ran out of the hostel and caught the first overpriced cab we could (no time to haggle) and went straight to the train station and got on our train.
It’s a good thing the trains from Lijiang to Kunming are really nice and comfy. I promptly forgot about the nice French girl in the hostel (as my tiny squirrel brain has a tendency to do) and chatted with two middle-aged guys from northeast China for about an hour, until the train people turned out the lights and everybody went to sleep.
Of course, things took a turn for the worse the next day. The magic of Lijiang and the Tiger Leaping Gorge was shattered when they turned on the interior lights on the train at 5 in the morning for no FUCKING reason, even though we were arriving in Kunming three hours later. And started playing really loud music, again for no reason. And then announced that we would “very soon be arriving in Kunming” an hour before we got there. It was a nightmare. Everybody was tired, still trying to sleep, almost everybody on the train, for those three hours, but the train stewards made it impossible to sleep for no reason.
I will say only briefly: this, and a thousand other reasons, is probably why China was rated second-to-worst-place in terms of service by The New York Times Magazine.
And one other reason: Jess forgot her bag on the train, and it was taken, I am nearly certain, by a train steward. Like, not taken and sent to lost and found, but just taken. I say this because after we got back to the hostel and Jess realized that she had lost her bag, I did the following: I went to the train station and begged them to help me; I spoke to about ten different officials of different rank and order until I found the correct place to ask for help getting the bag. Those guys then took a half hour to find out that the train had already been sent to the Cheku—the parking garage—and that I would have to go there myself to look for the bag. So I got a cab and he didn’t know how to get to the cheku. So I switched cabs and a nice middle aged lady drove me there. And I gave my passport to the guys at the gate. And I walked a half mile to the train. And got on board and walked the whole length of the thing to the very car that we had ridden in and checked it myself. And there was no bag. And I asked the cleaning ladies about it and they seemed certain that I would never see that bag again.
And every step along the way, people asked me what was in the bag. As if they knew that the level of importance of what was in the bag would determine whether or not it was “found”. In retrospect I probably should have lied and said that my passport was in the bag, and it might have turned up, but as it was it just contained Jess’s driver’s license, wallet, credit card, and some clothes. And after all that, the bag never surfaced.
I called Jess and broke the news, and then went back to the hostel. I realized around that time that I had also forgotten something over the last day (not just Emilie): the underwear I had hung up in the hostel in Lijiang was still there, waiting for some brave soul other than me to take it down.
Jess called her mom and told her about the bag, and I waited for the tears. Knowing my family as I do, I had a feeling they would come. And come they did. I’m not sure if every family is like this, but nobody in my family has ever liked it when things got lost. The reaction is always bad. It was bad when I was 1 to 18 years of age, and watching Jess’s face as she dealt with battling her own conscience about losing the bag, and then dealt with her family’s frustration that she had lost her license and credit card, was like looking at a mirror that could show me myself 10 or 15 years ago. It was strange and rather freeing, in a way: I realized that whatever horrible things I feel now whenever I screw something up are not just things I feel but things everybody feels. And they come from the hard process of growing up, and dealing with screw ups and lost bags and little failures like that, and learning the hard way how not to do that anymore. Which is the only way to learn it—the hard way. In a way, it sucks to feel awful and cry and get yelled at by your parents, but I guess…if there’s a good thing in it…it’s probably that you learn.
Anyway, we got over the missing bag and didn’t talk about it anymore, and relaxed for a day in Kunming. And soon it was time to go again to get on a plane to Shanghai, which was our final stop on the adventure. And which would be the place I would finally say goodbye to my cuz, and continue the China adventure on my own—this time, with a couple days’ rest in me, slightly better able to get by.