May 18, 2003 5:40pm
The wheels of the Sydney-bound plane lifted off the Hong Kong tarmac and we ascended steeply into the sky, the lights of the metropolis below a Christmas tree jungle. A few moments later we hit rough turbulence. I was flicking through the radio channels at the time, and got to thinking which one would be the best choice if we began to steeply de-scend.
Jazz and pop didn’t fit. Classical could work, but there was nothing dark enough. The comedy channel was out – I might not get to hear the punch line. And listening to the breathy woman on the New Age channel as I plunged to my death – “you are feeling serene and peaceful” – would only ensure my last moments were spent screaming in terror.
No, the only real choice was classic rock. Falling out of the sky to the pumping sound of Don’t Change (“The sky above won’t fall down”) or Don’t Fear the Reaper would somehow be strangely comforting. Perhaps because it encourages the idea that the moment is part of a story – that on the other side of the screen is a crowd of pimply teenagers who’ll go out and buy the soundtrack after the movie is over. Or maybe it’s just that playing air guitar as you skydive in a giant coffin is a great way to go out.
I didn’t find out. But I enjoyed the music anyway. I’ve missed good music this past year, especially while travelling. I don’t think I’ll ever bring myself to pack headphones (it defeats the purpose) but by the end of my trip any old rock song got the blood rushing. Pathetic really. I’m not sure if it’s because I enjoy music so much, or simply because the sound of background music is something that envelopes us in the West, so much so that we’re as oblivious to it’s presence as fish in a sea of electronic waves. Until it’s gone.
Not that China lacks tunes. It’s just that the modern variety is generally dire, so I avoided it as much as possible, a difficult thing to do when a karaoke DVD is looping on a long bus ride. Some westerners claim to like it, but they’re usually long-term residents; it’s probably a psychological coping mechanism. Various boy and girl bands compete to see how far they can debase the standards set by luminaries such as Britney Spice and the Backstreet Boys. And if Kenny G is getting a fraction of the royalties owed to him, he must be one of the richest people in the world. Even I began to crack towards the end, playing a certain song from a certain movie to a rapturous class one day as a listening exercise, a listening exercise involving listening to it six times. That’s a lot of listening. If you don’t know the one I mean, be thankful.
I have a feeling that if you travel long enough, eventually reality slips sideways and you find yourself somewhere that doesn’t appear in any guide book, somewhere with strange people and stranger customs. And when you email people to tell them about it, it gets sent to all the same names, but the people are completely different from the ones you knew.
I wasn’t travelling that long, as nomadic lives go, but already by the end of my trip cracks in reality were beginning to appear. For example, as I was departing Chengdu from the long-distance bus station a dark tower sprang up from the base of the highway, like a mushroom from a concrete buttress root. Escaping from the nightmare of a Chinese Tim Burton, it was a stack of black and red pavilions with kaleidoscopic corners that kept going up, like a rearing centipede. At the top it split into five demonic turrets, the centre one higher than the rest and capped with a temple roof. I didn’t get a photo, but it probably wouldn’t have turned out, either because of the gathering storm, or because it wasn’t there to begin with.
Later, in Yangshuo, I started to receive messages. I was cycling out in the rice fields early one morning, frogs, birds and crickets meeping, cheeping and chirping, when little signs began popping up from the submerged soil. “Are you ready to see something different?” the first one asked. “The waterwheel is an ancient Chinese agricultural technology” informed another, near a waterwheel. A little further on: “It’s not far away!” And so they continued, hinting at some gnostic secret hidden below the rice pools, and just round the corner, but never quite revealing it.
I never did find out, but whatever the solution to the mystery I suspect I didn’t have the money to pay for it. After climbing the archway called Moon Hill (the arch forms a crescent) – accompanied by one of those crones with an esky of drinks who complains about her weary bones but seems to have no trouble keeping up – I rode back to town and bought a bus ticket to Shenzhen, the shopping mall on the mainland side of the Hong Kong border. There was some doubt the bus would even arrive, due to the ever-tightening travel restrictions. But late that night I was ferried out of town in a pedicab (buses are no longer allowed into town, in case they spread disease) and boarded my very last sleeper bus. From there, it was non-stop buses, trains and planes all the way home.
My last brush with an alternate reality was the one created by SARS and its paranoid offspring. Masked people everywhere, temperature checks even to get into a park, forms to be filled out, white cloaked warriors spraying everything with the dip, patriotic public announcements. The enemy is everywhere, and nowhere. Apparently the death penalty has been introduced to curb the mortality rate. I’m not sure how successful that initiative will be, but it seems I was fortunate to leave before my unmasked status marked me as a counter-revolutionary. (Of course, I’m completely envious of anyone still there.)
I still haven’t spent a whole day in Hong Kong, but I saw more of it this time. It’s a lot greener than I thought. And if appearances are anything to go by, surprisingly free. The train from Shenzhen passed an orderly group of protestors with “Falun Dafa is good” printed boldly on a banner, and books by the Dalai Lama are available in bookstores. But there was no time to convert to a cult and no bucks to buy a book, so before I knew it I was on a plane, playing with the entertainment system and melodramatically wondering if Death would pass me by.
A few short hours later I arrived back in Brisbane, almost a year to the day I left for Cairns, with $20 in my pocket and a bag full of film, silk, carpets, scrolls and dirty washing. It’s been a good year for me, and hopefully I’ve imparted a taste of it through my emails, though I could’ve written twice as many and still not scratched the surface. I miss China already; the food, the culture, the people, the little life I built for myself beneath the clouds of Jinan, and the experiences of the road. I’m slowly re-adapting to life in Australia, and after a few more sessions of therapy I think I’ll be able to accept that it really is okay to actually put the paper in the toilet.
I arrived home to an outbreak of wedding-fever, which was a timely reminder that regular showers and clean clothes are a good idea. I was one of the groomsmen, so a hasty visit to the tailors ensured my weight loss program (travel & sickness is an unbeatable combination) hadn’t left me too small for my britches. Congrats to Simon and Karen, and also to my Jinan tailors, Jenny and Saffron, who’ve just got engaged.
Well, that’s it from me for a while. I have to concentrate on mundane matters such as finding a job and somewhere to live. I’m considering another year or so at university (linguistics), but several trips are already on the drawing board, including one going back in time.
I’ll post some photos of this trip to the site once I’ve got them developed and scanned. Some impressions to the contrary, my journey was actually pretty tame – nothing that can’t be done with a judicious reorganising of priorities and a guidebook firmly in hand. So if you’ve got the travel bug, then don’t resist; it’s stronger than SARS and a whole lot more rewarding.
Hope to catch up with all you Brisbanites soon, and everyone else on a bus going somewhere.
Over and under,
“Of course, everyone in China is happy, because the Communist Party is looking after us.” — a poker-faced old gentleman at English Corner, Jinan