The Chinese friend

Chris Taylor poignantly describes a bus tour in China, where fate brings him together with a local misfit.


Chris Taylor
April 6, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

If I had not, in a moment of weakness, exhausted by the fury of China's bus station queues, decided to join a tour to the historic hill resort of Lushan, I would never have met Wang. We picked him up next to the train station. I can see him now, tossing a cigarette butt into the gutter and slouching aboard the minibus like a fugitive plotting his next move. His fingers were grimy and stained with nicotine. Rodents might have nested in his tufted hair. He slid into a seat and promptly fell asleep. I did not pay him much notice. My attention was taken up by the tour.

Chinese, like Japanese, are all for tours. Every self-respecting tourist attraction has its hierarchy of sights, its hoary accretion of wide-eyed lore and its filing-cabinet litany of statistics. Alone or in the wrong hands you might end up just looking in happy wonderment, but that would never do. Chinese like to come away from their holidays the better for them. We came to Mount Lushan to name the parts: the inspiration-seekers who had toiled up its slopes, the great and mighty (Chiang Kaishek among them) who had vacationed on its cool, mist-shrouded ridges, the makers and shakers (Mao Tsetung for one) who had drunk tea and debated China's unending national problems in its villas. We had come to see Lushan's pen-and-ink landscapes, its roiling cloudscapes, from the exact appointed vantage points that landscapes and clouds should be seen. We had come to get the facts.

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They came thick and fast. We were group No. 28, and our guide, a young local woman in a no-nonsense red suit and armed with a shiny gold megaphone, provided committee-like statistics of every bridge we trundled over, the crops we passed by, the weather that drizzled miserably on us. "Lushan has an average winter temperature of 1.9 degrees," she announced as we rolled over a 79-meter-long bridge built in 1987. "You will note the peasants in the fields to your right planting rice. The average rice harvest in Jiangxi province ..."

Wang slept through the high-decibel, statistical assault like a baby. But at Lushan he was tapped awake. It was time for introductions. Wang was "Zhejiang friend." A timidly smiling gentlemen dressed in a shabby business suit, the washing instructions sewn onto the right cuff, was "Shanghai friend." A fresh-faced young couple who looked recently married were "Shandong friends." The sour, pinch-faced, cadre-like young man with acne that no one spoke to was "Hubei friend." I was "English friend."

Our first stop was the People's Hall. It was here in 1959 that Mao made a bellicose defense of his disastrous Great Leap Forward even as peasants across China starved. His portrait presided over the hall, which milled with the faithful, most of them dressed in uniforms of the People's Liberation Army. The auditorium was full of numbered chairs. On the stage were four more chairs identical to those provided for the audience. Historical significance notwithstanding, there is only so long I can look at a hall full of chairs. I drifted upstairs, where I found a photo gallery of Communist Party bigwigs at play -- Liu Shaoqi playing checkers with an unnamed minion, Mao at rest.

I was gazing at Mao, that aged infant, Mickey Mouse ears of hair at his temples, trying to imagine the man behind the mask with a party of army officers, when Wang bounded up beside me.

"What a load of bullshit!" he cried.

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"Well ..." I said, momentarily speechless. "It depends on your politics, I suppose." The officers gave Wang a sharp look. He shrugged and sauntered off. The army officers stared daggers at his retreating back.

At Dragon Fountain Lake we had a tree to look at. It was a towering object, a cedar of some description, I guessed, and we stood before it in a small huddle, our necks craning heavenward, while our guide adumbrated its height, its age, the circumference of its trunk, its estimated number of needles; she listed the poets who had girded it in metaphor, the painters who had seized its essence with a few deft brush strokes. More tour groups arrived and formed patient queues behind us.

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My mind, I'm afraid, temporarily stood easy under the assault of so much arboreal trivia, and when it snapped back to attention, I discovered the guide had been telling us that we were on our own for the next one and a half hours. She had, it seemed, been giving us detailed instructions about which path to take in order to get back to the minibus in time. I trudged off with the others, but she could tell I hadn't been listening.

"English friend!" she cried in a reproachful squeal through the megaphone. Approximately 100 heads turned. "Do you know where you're going?"

"Not really," I called back. "Don't worry. I'll just follow group No. 28. Wherever they go, I'll go."

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"Well, don't get lost and hold us up."

Remember, I muttered to myself, no more tours. I cast around for Wang, but he was nowhere in sight, so I tagged along behind Shanghai friend. In the event, there was no need. The approach to Dragon Fountain Lake involved clambering down a steep flight of stairs. At the bottom was a pond and a concrete yellow dragon. A feeble fount of water dribbled from its jaws. A queue formed for photographs. When the photo session was over, we trooped back up the stairs to the minibus. To lose yourself on such an adventure, I concluded, could only be achieved by a desperate plunge into the undergrowth.

At the next stop, I didn't even leave the minibus. The guide promised wonderful views, but the mist outside was so heavy you might have carved it up and exported it to wherever in the world they are crying out for more mist. My fellow tourists trooped out in a plaintive chorus: "Aren't you coming? It's going to be very beautiful."

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Wang returned about three minutes later. He stamped into the bus shaking his head in disgust. "That was a lot of fun. You can't see a thing in this weather."

The rest of the group were close on his heels. In the summer season, the guide explained, the views truly were very beautiful; this probably wasn't the best time to come to Lushan.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

We stopped for lunch. I'm not sure how it happened but somehow I
ended up
in one restaurant with Wang, and the rest of the group ended up in the
restaurant next door. He ordered an omelet peppered with tiny fish; I
ordered a pork and eggplant casserole.

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"Know how much this omelet costs?" asked Wang.

"No."

"Thirty yuan."

"That's an expensive omelet," I said. "Perhaps they used extra eggs."

"You can buy a dozen of them for 10 yuan at the market." Wang
picked one
of the little fish out of the omelet and held it in the air with his
chopsticks. "It's these little fish that are the problem. Any idea what they
are?"

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"Just looks like a little fish to me." I didn't know the Chinese
word for
minnow, and I doubt that's what it was anyway.

The waiter wandered over and sat down at our table. "Are you here
traveling
or here for a conference?" he asked.

"Well, we're here for a meeting with Chairman Mao," I said, "but he
hasn't
showed. Any idea where he is?"

The waiter grinned.

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"Ha!" said Wang. "Fuck your mother. Mao Tsetung, he fucked us over for
30 years. The Communist Party is still fucking us over." He smiled.
"You're OK. I've never talked to a foreigner before. Have some omelet." He
gestured at the omelet with his chopsticks. "You can call me Wang."

I gave him my Chinese name. I ate some omelet and little fish; he
ate some
eggplant and pork.

"You know what I think?" said Wang. "It's fate that brought us
together.
Yes, fate. Here's me, a bumpkin from Zhejiang -- yes, that's what you should
call me: Zhejiang bumpkin -- and here I am eating a meal and speaking Chinese
with a foreigner. It's fate, that's what it is."

The idea that fate had brought me together with Wang -- to what end? -- was a
slightly disturbing one, but I know too that the Chinese have no truck with
the random, with chance. "You know," I said, "China's so big most Chinese
don't get much chance to meet a foreigner."

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"No, it's fate, that's what it is." Wang helped himself to a mouthful
of my
eggplant. "You're from England. That's a rich country. Do you have human rights over there?"

"Well ..." I began.

"Fucked if we do over here."

The waiter, who had been listening in, got up and left.

Wang then insisted on paying for my meal. I tried to pay my way,
but it was
hopeless, and in the end I simply thanked him.

"Fate brought us together," he said with a solemn nod.

Our next stop was Dragon Head Cliff, a spectacular vantage point.
Clouds
lapped at our feet like a steaming tide. A craggy islet of rock rose in the
near distance, a lone fir perched impossibly on its summit. Shadowy cliffs
stood shoulder to shoulder in the distance. It was a scene that looked as if
it had been conjured into existence by a Chinese brush.

The guide droned out the inevitable roll call of artists, but
before she
had finished Wang began to become agitated. He waved his arms outward at a
distant row of cliffs, and the guide faltered in her monologue.

"It's ridiculous!" said Wang. "We're all standing here, because this is
where we're supposed to stand. But if someone had decided we had to stand
over there, we'd be standing over there."

A shocked hush fell over the group.

Wang appealed to me with his eyes. "Wouldn't we?" he demanded. The
guide glared at me. I said nothing. The guide coughed and resumed her speech. Wang
shrugged and stomped off.

He was waiting for me on the next ridge. He gestured helplessly out
at the
scene before us.

"They say it's amazing. I'll tell you what's amazing, when a person can
start with nothing and make a pile of money. That's amazing."

"Well, perhaps," I said carefully, "when you've got a pile of
money, you'll
want to do something with it. See amazing things maybe."

He scowled. "Maybe. But the only people in this country with money
are the
Party and their hangers-on."

The guide, her gold megaphone held aloft, was heading our way.
Helplessly,
to change the topic, I said, "Here she comes."

"The ugly bitch."

We drove back into Jiujiang, the town in which we had started.
There were no more statistics. Everybody nodded off. We dropped Wang off at
the train station, where we had picked him up. He scrambled out of the
minibus and lit up a cigarette. He took a few steps and then turned and
waved. It was a half-hearted, diffident effort, and halfway through he gave
up. He shrugged and turned away.

The terrible thing was, he was right in his way -- about Mao, about
the Party, about the absurdity of our neatly organized sightseeing expedition. He
was an outsider and I was a foreigner, which amounted to the same thing. My
mouth opened. I wanted to call out, "I'm sorry!" But he was disappearing
into the heaving scrum of the train station. Then he was gone.


Chris Taylor

Chris Taylor is the author or co-author of the Lonely Planet guides to China, Tibet and Japan, and of the Insider's guides to Nepal and China. He has also written for the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Daily Telegraph and the Australian. He lives in Taiwan.

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