SARS: the reality show

Apr 29, 2003 1:23pm
Where was I? Oh yes, the dreaded Taklamakan Desert, the Sea of Death. After all the build-up, it was tamed rather easily in the end by the magic of modern engineering; an elevated highway which sped us over a moonlit moonscape of sand. I arrived in Urumqi the next morning, straight into the teeth of a lovely snowstorm. Unimpressed, I hung around long enough to buy a ticket and get on the plane to Chengdu.

Chengdu is one of those rarities – a big, green, clean Chinese city. And, after a year in the north, one with wonderfully subtropical weather. Unfortunately, one of my first experiences of the city was a vicious case of food poisoning. After a couple of days appraising Chinese porcelain, I recovered enough to eat something bland … and promptly had a relapse. So I didn’t see much that week, other than a couple of days sitting in parks watching moss grow and pandas piss, which is certainly not without its moments but doesn’t make for scintillating email.

Innards empty at last, I caught a bus to Songpan, in northern Sichuan. The road squirmed like an intestine for six hours up a gorge. The gorge was colossal – a herd of shaggy green yaks jostling for a drink of jade, shoulders disappearing into cloud. At one point the river flooded an entire valley, forming a long lake hundreds of metres below. It was easy to ignore the usual Hong Kong flick playing in the background.

I must admit, though, I’m becoming a fan. HK movies tend to fall into two groups: the triad gangster movie – with violence so ultra it makes Tarantino look like a kid playing with tomato sauce – and the quirky kungfu comedy, often a period piece. Both usually follow the basic plot of a virtuous man seeking to defeat his enemies/fellow suitors and win the heart of the haughty girl. The comedies feature a hapless hero, often only successful in disguise, who somehow manages to overcome his ineptitude and find true love; in the violent version one of them dies at the end.

Some of the comedies are actually pretty funny, even though that old cliche – penis calligraphy – invariably pops up. One take-off of James Bond was particularly amusing, especially the burlesque of Communist spies (though I noticed that it was made before the handover). There was even a spitting joke.


If you go to Songpan you do a horse trek. So I did. It was well worth it – four days of saw bums and magnificent sites. I chose the “Ice Mountain” trip and set out with guides and three fellow laowais, the guides with the casualness of another slow day at the office, the rest of us with the studied nonchalance of twenty-somethings who were last in the saddle at the school fair, aged five.

Right from the beginning my horse and I decided we weren’t going to race off like the others – we were just going to take our own sweet time, hang back and enjoy the scenery. It’s true we did have a slight disagreement over whose fault it was that I was unceremoniously dumped over its head on the first morning. As the old saying goes, it’s a poor horseman who blames his steed. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the horse was at fault. Fortunately the horse improved over the next few days and there weren’t any repeat incidents, though we’re no longer on speaking terms.

We had perfect weather every day, our horses picking their way up and over valleys, along ridges, down through Tibetan villages and up flowing creeks. The hills were striated with terraces, many abandoned. At night, we camped on the grass by the creeks. The nights were cold, though not in the Tibetan sheepskin coats our guides provided for us. The second morning we awoke to a blanket of snow, which melted away in a few hours.

The trail was a little hairy at times, especially on the third day, when we ascended steeply through muddy alpine forest to the loose shale above the tree-line. Goats and yaks stared blankly at us as we passed, ribbons hanging from their ears. We had lunch at a snowfield 600m below the 5588m summit, the hanging glacier aglow in the harsh sunlight. Thankfully, we walked down rather than ride.

Great people, filling food, wonderful views; a good time.


From Songpan I returned to Chengdu, where I spent a few days assessing my options. About the time I bought the plane ticket in Urumqi I’d realised my credit card was out-of-date. Two weeks later the express posted package still hadn’t presented itself, so sadly I was forced to give up my plan to revisit Lijiang by way of the Tibetan outpost of Zhongdian.

In any case – as you may’ve noticed – China is quickly moving from the “calm and under control” model of disease management to something resembling a police state, so I figured I was best to begin tactically withdrawing to the border before it closed. Unfortunately, said border is the one between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, which, as you may also have heard, is the epicentre of the latest public confidence quake, with a populace about as calm and collected as C3PO next to a thermal detonator.

But, with the maxim that death comes to those who wait firmly in mind, I spent another night on a moving movie theatre, bound for Yangshuo, two-thirds of the way to Hong Kong. Don’t worry, I’m being as careful as possible. I haven’t got a face mask yet, but I plan to. Not to prevent myself getting sick with SARS – as a prophylactic it’s about as useful as a chicken wire condom – but simply to prevent being stoned to death by the masked mobs roaming Hong Kong airport.

Hopefully I’ll be able to afford one – I hear fortunes are being made at the moment. There’s also my small cash flow problem, microscopic being the operative word. Large wads of 100 yuan bills are now a fond memory, and I’ve stopped allowing myself the luxury of breakfast, living solely on the whiff of dead socks and the odd bowl of rice.

Which is a shame, when I’m in Yangshuo, Backpacker Hangout Number One, where the smell of pointy leaves osmotes through the humidity and every one of the dozens of cafes cook up the western delicacies my abused stomach is crying out for. Like pizza. Pizza, pizza, pizza! Mmmmmn. Everyone else must have the same idea, because I’ve probably seen more foreigners here than I have the rest of the year in China. The vendors are complaining the place is a ghost-town, so I can only imagine how many are here normally. A lot of the foreigners seem to be tour guides and teachers whose jobs are currently on hold.

Despite the cafes, hostels and souvenir shops lining every street, there are good reasons to visit Yangshuo; the town is nestled in a landscape straight out of a Chinese painting. Green karst peaks rear up dramatically from paddy fields and duck farms, and cormorant fishers in straw hats pole their boats across the river. Water buffalo patrol the shores. It’s a great place to sit and watch the world go round.


Ironically, at the same time I’ve found my pockets full of pennies, my bargaining skills have finally come into their own. I never used to like bargaining, but it’s become one of my favourite pastimes. While in Jinan I learned to get down to about half the original asking price; while travelling I managed a third; here I’m getting less than a quarter or even lower in some cases. The economic freeze and the ridiculously over-priced souvenirs obviously have a lot to do with it, but for the first time I’m getting cursed for being a hard bargainer, which is one of the best compliments a customer can receive.

Bargaining is a great game for two. One person attempts to extort and gouge as much as money as possible, the other tries to get something for nothing. It’s basically a performance, which is probably why I enjoy it so much. The person you met a minute ago says you’re friends, so they’ll give you an extraordinary discount – they name the price and you laugh in their face. They immediately halve it, and you moan about how you’re a poor teacher who needs to eat. It’s their turn to have a laugh.

After some good-natured haggling, they name their final offer – mentioning again the fine workmanship of their goods – and when they refuse your counter-offer, you walk away. That’s when they hastily agree to sell you the 250 yuan painting for 40. Only you don’t have 40 to spend, so you merrily wave goodbye, they shriek in rage, and you move on to the next shop, the unsuspecting proprietor already homing in on you.

Some things, though, are hard to resist. For instance, if I go without food today, I might just have enough for a Tintin & the Blue Lotus t-shirt…


It’s amazing who you meet up with whilst travelling. On the way to Yangshuo I got talking to Bud, a tall, thin American. He mentioned he was a film executive, and I half-jokingly said that the SARS scare would make the perfect backdrop for a Hollywood thriller set in Hong Kong. He took me seriously, and before I knew it we were discussing the plot, based very loosely on my own travels!

The beauty of it is that I’m headed for Hong Kong, so I’ll have plenty of opportunity to experience the chaos first-hand. From Yangshuo the plan is to travel by bus through the rice paddies to Wuzhou (think ‘Speed’ in China), then take a catamaran down the river and along the coast to Hong Kong harbour, with the opportunity for highspeed battles with pirates and smugglers.

After I take a few flesh wounds and leap from the exploding boat, I’ll swim to shore and stumble about with amnesia until Michelle Yeoh finds me and nurses me back to health. Then I’ll team up with Jackie, who’ll teach me his moves, we’ll put on our masks and fight our way through quarantine agents, jumping on the plane to Australia and taking off at the last minute, just as Canada begins clusterbombing Hong Kong in a pre-emptive strike…

Well, maybe not.

But that’s the beauty of the reality show – you never know what’s going to happen next.

I think there’s something in the socks,

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