Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 08 2011


Breakfast at the Best 8 consisted of the usual steamed buns, hard-boiled eggs and congee. While the others packed I took photos of an annoyed maid washing mops behind the elevator. The light was nice.

Downstairs, our driver, Mr. Li, awaited. Mr. Li has an even higher voice than Chenbl, who is already able to sing Yang Lin songs quite as well as Yang Lin herself. We piled into the small van and set out for the hinterlands. I sat in the second row of seats, noting photo after photo pass by without being able to take them. Eventually I switched to the front passenger seat, where I got a couple of shots, but the scenery was quickly becoming less and less palatable as we approached the ring of industrial wasteland that surrounds cities in China. Toxic fumes in the air, sludge-filled rivers, mountains of trash…the whole works. It was depressing until we emerged into more rural environs, and the journey quickly came to remind me strongly of riding from my hotel in Kaiping to the factory in Cangcheng every da back in 1993. 18 years ago. Damn.

Even in rural areas, tall apartment buildings were going up with no thought or preparation for earthquakes that I could see. We spent half and hour edging around a large rock that had somehow fallen off the back of a truck not much larger than the rock itself. Mr. Lee grudgingly put a cigarette back in his pocket after we told him we’d rather he didn’t smoke. Well, he did ask.

The road began to wind up into the mountains as the morning progressed. We passed a sign proclaiming Annette Lu’s ancestral home in a small town. Scars from massive landslides, both old and new, marked the hillsides. We were headed for the earth buildings, or tulous, round castle-like edifices built of mud and wood by ancient Hakka and mistaken for missile silos by U.S. intelligence satellite photos in the 60s. The roads were still under construction; China obviously has big plans for tourism in the area.

We stopped for some delicious lunch before heading to our first tulou, where seeds were floating in the air like snow. A woman was offering to take up upstairs for a substantial fee, but Mr. Li had said to just ignore them. The circular building was three or four stories high, a little community unto itself. We walked around the old village outside, talking with some of the local residents, partially in Mandarin but mostly in Minnan.

Mr. Li said we had a lot to see that day and had better get a move on. I found this a bit annoying, but he’d said he’d only been doing the driver gig for a month or so, so I cut him some slack. We drove to a nearby village on a river, just across an old bridge. The front part was very nice, but everything behind it was still being renovated. It was very pleasant, artists painting the huge, thousand-year-old trees and old buildings lining the stream. I walked through the backstreets, watching farmers burn excess vegetation and bricklayers at work. At the local barbershop, I found a curious pair of old fellows, one deaf and the other mute. A man down by the riverside invited us to tea. It was the first of about a thousand times we were asked to sit down and have tea. It was the first step in getting us to buy tea, making it hard for us to say no after receiving their hospitality, so we usually declined.

The next stop was a square tulou five stories in height, a pretty amazing achievement for almost a millennium ago, again we were asked to pay to see the upstairs. I took a photo of an old woman at work in a field; she yelled at me, taking a couple of steps towards me and brandishing her hoe. I gathered she wasn’t happy about being photographed. “That old woman sure doesn’t like visitors,” I told Chenbl, who is always saying how being nice to people pays off.

As I skirted the other side of the field, I heard Chenbl greet the old woman. “Go to hell!” she barked.

Mr. Li was rushing us along; his admonishments were becoming quite annoying. We drove even further up into the mountains, among the lines of tea fields gracing the slopes, to a cliff overlooking a group of several tulous together. After posing for pictures, we trekked down to the community and split up. I left Chenbl and the others to wander around on my own, taking photos. One of the tulous was playing host to a funeral, so I avoided it. The well water looked sparkling and clean. Kittens and dogs scampered about in the afternoon sun.

A while later, when the others found me, they said the people I’d passed said they hadn’t noticed any foreigners passing that day. One man I took a picture of, however, said that “All foreigners love to take my picture.” He was mystified at this phenomenon, and none of our assurances that he was quite handsome had any effect; he insisted that he was really ugly.

At the next tulou, Chenbl was yelled at by another old woman at the door for taking her photo. She pointed her cane at him in a plain warning. “I’m sorry!” he said, smiling, and she pointed her cane at him, laughing in such an evil, mocking caricature that I shuddered.

Cops gambled in a group inside, betting on cards. A woman wanted money to take us upstairs, and an old guy wanted me to give him two dollars. “Sorry, all I have is Taiwan dollars,” I said. He said that was ok. “You really want two Taiwan dollars?” I said. He nodded, and I gave him two NT. The whole place gave me a bad feeling in the light of the late afternoon sun.

Our next stop was a picturesque village with a river running through it. We walked around, visiting an old building where a woman was planning a hostel. In an alleyway a man was playing a traditional Chinese instrument. We chatted, and it turned out that he was a big fan of Ma Ying-jeou.

We drove into Mr Li’s home village as the sun set. There was a dilapidated tulou across the street from his home, across a small, muddy steam where women washed clothes and disposed of garbage. He claimed that he had grown up there, but it was falling apart now, parts of the structure completely collapsed, and only a few residents remained. We had originally planned to spend a night in one of the tulou that had been somewhat refurbished, but Mr. Li wanted us to stay upstairs at his house. We went upstairs at his tulou, but it was just awful. No water, no toilets or showers, ancient floorboards with holes in them and no lights at night. We gave in and decided to stay with the Lis. As they had no doubt planned from the beginning. At least dinner was tasty. As there was simply nothing to do, we were all in bed by 8:30.

posted by Poagao at 5:03 pm  

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