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Archive for May, 2008

The Plot Thicks

Monday, May 12th, 2008

This blog will have a surprise ending.  I guess it was a month ago that I went to Hong Kong, writting this from Xi’an by the way.  And a week before Hong Kong was the national holiday, and Alice and her husband and Xeng jing bing and I all went to mountain chicken head down in south Henan, just for the weekend.
That was a nice weekend, Alice is my good friend and a teacher at my former school.  I have talked about her here before, remember?  She often tells me how jealous she is that I get to travel around the way I do, so I figured we would plan to have an adventure together.  First we were going to go to Huang Shan which is one of the five important Taoist mountains, but it was a holiday weekend and we couldn’t get train tickets so we instead figured on mountain chicken head.
But I started to tell you about Hong Kong, got all sidetracked.  I will come back to Chicken head, first Hong Kong.  I also have to remember to tell you about my last few days here in Xi’an, I’ve been having a blast, and I promise if we make it to the end their will be a big surprise ending.
So Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is great, I mean it!  Imagine this: Hong Kong is one of the biggest and I would assume most econamically prosperous cities in the world.  Got to be, no?  It is huge, and the night sky line is dotted with giant glowing neon corrperate logos, some as big as foot ball fields.  And every single person is from every single different corner of this ever shrinking planet, and the streets are teaming with them shoulder to shoulder hustling and bustling, always on their way, always moving.  And their are so many museums and things for tourists to do, and the subway is so easy and fast that only an asshole with money to burn or to show off would have hubress enough to own and drive a car.  And the side streets really are links to times past, the narrow stone roads wind and vendors scream and food steams and banners strung up from one side of the street to the other wave in the wind, and in the morning you can see little old ladies doing Tai Chi in the parks and in the late afternoon you can see them in their shops or behind their street stahls asleep and every so often incense from a hidden way temple wafts through the tepid air.  It is a huge place and it makes you feel tiny and it is doublessly amoung the greatest of all metropolis’.
Now imagine this:  Their is an island 20 minutes away from Hong Kong island by ferry, it is almost as big as Hong Kong island.  One would assume that human nature being human nature, that place would be covered with starbucks and mcdonalds, paved and covered, high rises and all the rest, right?  That is what I would have figured, but no, I would have been wrong.  Lantao island, which is (like I said) almost as big as Hong Kong island, is kept pristeen for hiking and camping, aside from the occasional fishing villiage that lines the shore, and always has I would think.  I took a bus to get to the giant Buddha statue and it took two busses over an hour to get to the other side.  Think about that, instead of developing they just left it the hell alone.  I really love Hong Kong.
The big Buddha was maybe thirty feet tall on top of a mountain and it was way cool.  Somehow no matter where you stood in front of the thing the smile followed you.  Across the parking lot was a monestary which was recomended by George from Shangqiu.  George had lived there for a few days, I didn’t have that kind of time, I had to mess with sorting out my visa, which was the real reason for my trip.  The monestary was very calm and very peaceful, singing was in the air and a cool breeze rustled the leaves in the trees.  The Monks all smiled as I passed, and I could see how one could live in such a place.  It was so peaceful.  I had to stop and sit under a tree for the better part of ten minutes, just drinking in the scene.  Man, what a wonderful feeling.  I could show you pictures of the place but it wouldn’t make your soul thump, no man.  You just got to go to feel that.  And the place is so filled with love and quiet, I don’t know about you but growing up in a less than religiously active family kind of left me feeling strange and out of place in a church.  Like I might do the wrong thing, or fart loudly mid serman (and have to sit in my own pew, HA) or kneel when it is time to bow or duck or whatever they do.  I once took communion by mistake.  It was at a funeral or wedding or something and everyone else was lining up to go to the front and someone said I didn’t have to and I said that I didn’t mind as if they were worried about putting me out, so me not wanting to offend anyone by poo pooing their weirdo ritual I ate the cookie.  Does that make me Catholic?  I certainly hope not.  The point is that when in a temple on a mountain top filled with smiling monks I never feel uncool or out of place, and I know almost nothing about Buddism beyond the basic starter shit that you all know too.  I know I can’t see myself meditating, and aparently they don’t eat meat, which I enjoy doing.  So maybe I will just be a bad Buddhist, if it makes me happy to feel nice when I go to a Temple than I don’t see that I am hurting anyone, although I do feel like a poser at times.
Buddha doesn’t seem to mind, why should you?
So after the Monestary I took a trail that took me up the side of a mountain.  I didn’t go the whole way, it was really steep, but I did go really really far, and I sat on the side of a cliff, I hadn’t seen another living person in an hour.  On the other side of the valley below was another mountain, on top of that mountain I could see the giant Buddha where I had been earlier, now it was tiny.  I got to thinking about the old me, the guy who wouldn’t have really wanted to go tearing up a mountain alone.  dependent on other people’s help, sad, no direction.   And I got to thinking back on the whole year and a half I have had.  I thought about where I had been, and you know it occured to me that I am proud of myself.  I have backpacked through seven countries, and I did it alone on my own steam.  I don’t like to brag, but it is important for us to recognize that we arn’t neccesarily the shitty people we make ourselves out to be sometimes.  I am lucky sure, but I am strong enough to make it, the strength to endure as the Ramones song says.  That is what I was thinking all alone up there on that mountain, looking out across a valley at the giant Buddha.  After a while I walked down that cliff a little bit taller than I had walked up.  Then I saw bees and freaked out running, I don’t like bees.
Yeah yeah, so the week before that I was doing mountain chicken head with Alice and her husband and Xing Jing bing.  Xing Jing Bing is a former student of mine from my days at the highschool and a current student of Alice’s.  I gave him the name, and it means crazy boy.  I called him that in class one day and the whole class stood and gave a screaming ovation in agreement.  That may have been the longest laugh I ever got out of a class of kids, I do so love making them laugh.  The train ride over was long but the Henan province is green and beautiful now, not all grey and brown and dead looking like it is in the winter.  This time of year it is green with yellow flowers, it looks like Monet’s take on a Chinese farm landscape.  So we were climbing the mountain, and it turns out that Alice has never been in the woods before.  Ever, no shit.  So she wanted to stop and play in the creek every five feet which was funny and we were in no rush.  A few times we went tromping off the trail into the forrest, she had such a great smile the whole time, I was mainly enjoying how much she seemed to be enjoying everything, she was a child on Christmas and it was a cool thing.  Gidy would be a good word.  Xing Jing Bing ran ahead of us up the mountain and we found him climbed all the way up a damn tree which was almost hanging over a straight cliff on the edge of nothing, his crazy ass had no idea how to get down, like a cat.  He had to jump and I caught him.
The mountain itself was nice enough, but everyone said it looked like a chicken head and I couldn’t see it.

quick note, I am in a public internet cafe right now and the guy in the computer two computers down is totally looking at porn, but he keeps hiding it thinking nobody can see.  He just caught me looking and I laughed at him.

The next week I went to Hong Kong, and the week after that I was back teaching.  That week the first two days I had to give my kids a talk about some sad stuff that was happening, the second two days I brought cake and we had a big party.  I fed them all cake and then we had a talent show, anything the kids could do, even stupid talents, I explained that if anyone could fart on command then they were the grand champians of the whole school but nobody could, or would own up to it if they could.  I did have a few kids that could do some cool stuff, dancers, singers, Tai Chi, kung fu, one kid wrote me a message on a desk with cake icing.  They were really sweet.
TERRACOTTA WARRIORS, COME OUT TO PLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY
TERRACOTTA WARRIORS, COME OUT TO PLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY

This week I am in Xi’an, I came up for the long weekend with Wei, by good buddy.  Wei is the coolest guy I know in China and we will always be friends.  I hope he doesn’t mind if I tell you this, I don’t think he will, but Wei’s wife left him a couple of months ago, he loved her so much.  Wei was all broken up and came over to my house several nights, we drank beer over it and I tried to be a brother for him.  Over the past month he seems to have been able to rebuild his life.  He has strength I may never know, he seems almost OK with things now.  I admire him a great deal, the way he has kept it together, he is hurting though, you can see it the poor guy.  So we figured we would go to Xi’an togther.  The train left Shangqiu at 6 pm and arrived at 5 am,  we had seats instead of beds so I didn’t sleep but maybe one hour, Wei managed to get maybe three I guess.   When we got in at 5 we figured we would just say fuck it and go straight to the terracotta warriors.  We had that silly no sleep energy, and after a hearty meal of a big mac (the Mcdonalds in Xi’an doesn’t do breakfast) we were off and made the hour bus ride only to find out we were an hour early.  The sky was dark that morning, at 8 am foggy chilled wind whipped around and the temperature was dropping.  Birds were going bat shit crazy, shooting like bullets all around in a frenzy, tree tops were bobbing around like rowboats in rough sea and the sky was getting dark.  A storm was in the mail, Wei and I were both in tee shirts.
Wei and I ran into the complex which had three large buildings just as the sky open up in freezing buckets.  Everyone else was running into the close one, but I could see one with a roof that was arched like an airplane hanger, this jived in my mind with pictures I had seen of the Warriors so I said we should go to that one first.  Well it turned out to be the biggest chamber and what’s more the place had one security guard, 6000 stone warriors, 70 chariots, god knows how many horses, and Wei and I.  Our own private army inspected by us alone.  This was a rush in itself, but the greater thrill was the sight of the warriors.  I mean these things really are amazing.  I knew they had different faces but they also have different body types, some fat, some skinny, some old, I saw a few that looked like teenagers, some tall, some short.  Some slouched slightly.
And did you know that they know these 7000 warriors all together are just the tip of the iceberg?  They know that the pits close to the tomb are more impressive and of larger numbers.  Did you know that?  One reason they have not dug them up yet is they are still not quite sure where to dig, often burial mounds were built near a tomb to trick robbers.  Also there is the problem of the oxygen.  In 1974 a farmer was digging a well and found the statues by mistake.  They say that when they opened the chamber the statues were all painted but the sudden burst of air made the color fade within ten minutes.  They are waiting until the technology is up to the challenge, so I’m told.
The warriors are guarding the tomb of  Qin dynasty Emperor Qinshihuang who started the great wall at age thirteen, and at the age of thirty seven was able to conquer the other six warring city states and for the first time unify China under a central government.  He created unified systems of law, weights and measures, and written language.  He also killed a lot of people and was known as an all around evil bastard.  For four decades after his death people were building terracotta warriors to guard his tomb, and what kills me is when they were finished they buried and hid the whole thing.  One of the greatest artistic achievements in man’s history and they didn’t want anyone to ever see.  To them it was all in honor of their fallen Emperor and about following his wishes, they performed this miracle for one person, following his orders to the letter, losing many workers lives in the process.  And all for a guy who was already dead.
I just finished reading a really good book that my ace Carson sent me.  The book is called Stiff and it is all about the way our society uses dead people for science and it is about what will happen to our bodies when we are not alive.  In the last chapter the author talks about what she thinks she will do with her remains.  She leans towards something simple and points out that when a person’s last wishes are elaborate and complicated or expensive it is really a way for the dying person to ensure that they can still exert their will over their families even after death.  So if people are still making statues for me four decades after I check out then you can all say that I was just as much of an asshole as Qinshihuang, Emperor of the Qin dynasty.

Three months ago I was in Macao at the same hostel I have told you about, the one which I had given the fake name Septembers to, so as not to embarass the real people with the likes of me.  This last time was my fourth trip, I use it as an in and out point for other countries.  I was hanging around the hostel and luck presented me with these two new wonderful friends, they were a pair of young lovers from Burma.  I will say this but I would really like to stress that I am not just saying the following statement, rather, know that I am meaning it like a motherfucker: they may be the nicest people I have ever meet.  They were so sweet and immediatly wanted to become good friends with everyone they met.  That day they met me and friends we became.  The girl was named Nyi Nyi and was from a Buddist family and Nandor’s family was Muslim.  They are running off to study in another country and plan on getting married even though their families will not approve.  Nandor told me that Nyi Nyi had a secret wish to boast to her family that she had had a very great day in Macao and I promised I could make that happen, and the next day we could all three go to the China Embassy to sort out our visas together.  We went out that day and saw everything in that town, and I told them I could show them a great time because I happened to be the Prime minister of Macao, and so they called me prime minester the rest of the day.  We all laughed easy and had a day which proved highly boast worthy, at the end of which they took turns using the hostel computer to send all the photos I had taken home, boasting had comenced.  One night they wanted me to watch a movie they had downloaded on their laptop.  They said it was a movie about their country, so I said sure.  The movie wound up being Rambo 4.  If you are unfamiliar with Rambo and what he does I would refer you to parts one through three, part four is more or less the same thing but this time it’s in Burma.  He kills so many people, all soldiers from the Burma government, the best part is when Rambo uses a land mine to explode a whole entire mountain, shock waves are sent all around and he just barely escapes.  I asked them what they thought about Rambo doing this in their country and they loved it.  The Government of Burma is one of the worst bunch of bastards in power anywhere and Nandor and Nyi Nyi kept telling my how great Rambo (not Sylvester Stallone) was for making a movie which lets everyone know about their government.
The next day we went to the China embassy early, I had gotten the letter the school had faxed to the hostel which requested that I get a worker visa for the next six months.  This is because the school didn’t want to spend the money on the right kind of teacher visa as I was only doing one semester.  So The friday before I had dropped off my paper work and now just had to come and get it, imagine my suprise when I picked up my passport to find a two month worker visa instead of a six.  More on that later.
Meanwhile I hadn’t talked to Nandor or Nyi Nyi in the past Three months, but we have been emailing the past few days.  I just got word that Nandor has heard from his family and they are ok, but Nyi Nyi hasn’t gotten word from Hers yet, and it has been a few days.  If you pray please do so for these people, and the people of Burma while you’re at it.
The other cool thing about that trip to chicken head mountain (jigongshan) was that Alice’s husband Jack had a friend who worked in a nearby hotel and spa.  We got the fancy treatment for free, yes we did.  We got to go to the pool, hot tub, suana, work out room (I lifted a little) room of comfy chairs with attatched TVs, archery range, and even a rock climbing wall.  So it turns out I can’t rock climb, maybe I was never meant to.  It was pathetic.  The best was on the bottom the guy with the rope was a skinny little Chinese kid, I fell of the wall at one point and my droping hoisted this dude in the air like a kite.  After that I went back to the pool.
Alice and Xing jing Bing had never been swimming and didn’t know how.  I am glad to say that after two days I had them both doing a mean dog paddle.  Alice was funny, every five minutes she demanded that I watch what a good job she was doing and I would tell her what a good job she was doing and she would say “really” and I would tell her “really really good.”
Ok, now back to Hong Kong.  I had to get up really early and catch a subway under the harbor to get to the line for the China Embassy one morning, which actually isn’t an embassy but it has some other funky name because Hong Kong is part of China.  At any rate I got there an hour early to find the line already around the corner.  I had a book but found myself vastly more entertained by people watching all the folks from different countries.  I was armed with my passport and a letter which had been written by my school just like before.  This was at the end of my two month working visa and I was now missing work to be here.  The coolest part was the school was paying for my train and my visa.  The guy who I work with at the school had said that they would do the hotel too, the day I left he laughed and said no, they would not.  He always tells people what they want to hear instead of the truth, always leaves one guessing.  But a paid trip to Hong Kong ain’t all bad, especially a week after a three day weekend climbing a mountain with friends.
So they finally let me in the building and I went upstairs and got my id photo taken and after 20 minutes my number was called and I presented my papers to the lady in the window.  The paper made the her frown, she was not at all happy.  She looked very concerned.  The lady in the window was less than pleasant.  A little on the touchy side.
The paper, it turns out, is pretty much just a piece of paper with a simple message in Manderin, ‘please give this man a worker visa for two months.  Thank you’ and then an official stamp.  It had no date, it had nobodies name, it had no address, it had no contact email or phone number, it didn’t even have the name of the school, all of which were needed.  Any idiot could have typed this up, it proved nothing.
The guy at my school has done this before, you know?  It is only illegal in the strickest sense of illegal, the term illegal itself has another connotation in China.  I just found out the small taxi’s made of motorcycles, the ones I take every day are “illegal” but it only means they have to pay the cops a fine when ever the cops want shake down money.  Hundreds of them whizz around the streets every day and nobody goes to jail or cares.  This worker visa instead of a teacher visa has worked before for our school, hell it worked for me two months ago.  Now it didn’t seem to be working.
I told the lady in the window the line of bullshit just as I had been instructed.  I said I was a visiting scholar, whatever that means.  A worker visa is for like, say if you are building a bridge or something.  They look the other way, or always have before.  The lady in the window said this would not work.  She said I was either a teacher or a tourist, if I was a teacher I need a teacher visa and either way the maximum I could have was one month.  That is because of the Olympics, the stupid Olympics, they are cracking down and unless you are only going to Beijing for the games they don’t want you in the country, so the longest tourist visa is one month.  She looked at my soon to expire visa, a two month worker visa, that really got her mad.  She told me to step out of line and rewrite my form and get a tourist visa or nothing at all.  Friends, this was an ‘oh shit moment’.
I paced, I freaked out.  It took me a half hour to find a coffee shop with a public internet and another half hour and three cups of coffee waiting for my turn.  I wrote to the guy at the school, it was a very careful dance on the line of not burning my bridges but diplomatically allowing them to know my concern.  I will not teach on a tourist visa, I told them.  That is just plain stupid illegal not wink wink illegal like the worker visa thing, and if caught they would ammend my passport and I might not get back inside China.  I said I wanted to go on teaching, my plan was to get the tourist visa just to reenter and have the school change it to the right teaching visa.  Now the line was endless and I spent the next five hours waiting.  I made friends with a dude from Turkey and we passed most of the time with good conversation.  He had to pick up his kid from school and was freaking out so I gave him my number, which was lower and only cost me ten more minutes.  But he was a nice guy and he really did need to get his kid from school so I didn’t mind.  So I applied for the tourist visa and arranged to pick it up the next day.
I spent a lot of time wandering alone in Hong Kong.  A big city with nobody to share it with is a lonely scene.  I know because I am in Beijing now.  Man, it is weird just walking around, going to museums alone.  Eating alone, last night I wanted to hit up a bar, there were so many good looking ones, but a bar is just sad if you are solo, for me anyway.  I ate snake on a stick and nobody was there to tell me how gross it was.  I watched the Jet Lee Jackie Chan movie last night, which is good for the fighting and a few funny things.
So I went back to my city, my Shangqiu with a one month tourist visa.  I wanted to keep teaching, I didn’t want to leave early.  The worst would be the students, my wonderful students who have worked so hard for me, surely the school would be able to fix this, no?

ready for the surprise?

Manuels at 8, Monday night, see you there.