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Published: February 13th 2008
"Uuuuh," Joan moans as we enter the PSB office on Beijing Lu, "this guy's a prick," he informs me under his breath. Within half a minute I've gathered as much. Standing across from him seperated by a desk, the officer speaks as though to an assembly. I respond in a likewise trumpeted voice, "I plan to travel around Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangzhou. He seems satisfied. I fill out the form and hand over my passport. It'll take a week. In the meantime Joan suggests a trip to the Burmese border. We arrange for friends to take care of Joan's black lab. His friends, Matt and Jacob message us apologies while we are away, their same sex role modeling has sorely influenced their own pitbull's randy demeanour towards the lab.
A visit to Tengchong
ranks, I should hope, very, very low on a foreigner's itinerary in China. We arrive aboard the sleeper bus from Kunming before sunrise and book into a non descript hotel. The lobby is crowded with minority women merrily conversing, sqwacking like chickens, their hair wrapped in bath towels, a devolved traditional head dress. They admire photo albums taken the other day at a friend's wedding. After a
hot shower and a cup of instant coffee, Joan and I wander into town, stopping at a makeshift noodle stand before cutting up a few backroads where the inhabitants crouch behind buckets or burlap sacks displaying fresh produce, stacks of eggs, caged chickens, tables with bowls of steaming soups or noodles. Along the riverside a handful of seniors are swinging, pumping, twirling on rusting outdoor gym equipment. We lose our way in the higgelty piggelty back alleys, rows and rows of fuit and veg and meat and potholes. The town's faces share a strange expectant look, as though all are awaiting somebody or something to arrive. Afternoon we spend entirely too long searching for the only noteworthy attraction in town, a small temple straddling a waterfall. The entry fee costs more than a generous meal. I lead us along the river down a dirt track that soon escapes town and climbs into the hillsides overlooking lush terraces, rice plots, bamboo groves and other sub tropical flora. With money saved we stuff our faces on hot pot, submerging countless plates of strange vegitables into the bubbling red soup. This is Joan's second visit to Tengchong. Several years back he came with
his business partner and the two shopped for antiques, mostly wicker ware and a couple wooden armoires. Throughout the day, Joan expresses astonishment. How can it be that Tengchong is so boring!
A grey morning. The bus for Ruili
climbs into the hills skirting Tengchong. Fog and humidity blur the windows, chain smokers annoy my sinuses. Our journey takes an extra two hours. Once across the muddy mountain passes, dodging potholes and chickens and on coming farm equipment, a young woman driver in training takes over from her male colleague. The latter falls into a deep snooze, waking to find his comrade in training comandeering us down the wrong highway, traveling under 50km/h reluctant to honk and too nervous to pass. The two drivers begin to squabble. It appears she has picked up a group of passengers who wished to be let off near Wanding, an hour's detour but their fare more than compensates for the little extra use of gas. Her male superior sits down and is quiet for the rest of the slow going ride. With less than an hour of sunlight hanging overhead Joan flags down a motodriver and gives him vague directions to an unlisted
guesthouse in the south of town, Mandalay Garden, run by a buddy of his who recently moved to Dali where he co-owns a new bar. Mandalay Swamp might be more accurate. There are few lights to help visitors from the front gate through the dense garden, narrow paths and stepping stones submerged in brown puddles. Joan & I are the only guests. We stow are things in one of half a dozen bamboo huts, thin walls matched with thin mattresses, before returning to the restaurant. Chill music skips on the CD player, the lights are out except for a glow from the kitchen window behind the bar. The young fuyuan who tried to overcharge us for the hut takes our order, suggests I try the Indian curry. It is tasteless and overpriced. Joan is astonished at what's become of his friend's guesthouse. Nearby a pagoda pounds with Buddhist techno interspersed with long, long sermons throughout the night, a bitter sweet memory of my travels in Myanmar.
Morning is consequently a drawn out affair, soporific and aching, jolted with an unwelcomed cold shower, a tai chi session stranded on a stepping stone in a vast puddle and several cups of
instant nescafe when the fuyuan declares they are out of coffee. There are no attractions, persay, in Ruili and without any rental bikes on hand we make do with a long walk into the surrounding neighbourhoods. A dirt track climbs into the bushes hiding piles of rubbish and a lost cemetery where a couple white washed family tombs overlook flooded rice fields and tall sugarcane stalks. The Jade market offers a curios circus act for avid people. Chubby middle-aged Indian mine owners dresed in bright plaid longyis stroll in groups apart from the Chinese buyers, middle aged men in navy suits, black shoes and white socks. Young Burmese men, tawt muscles show under snug fitting longyis, serve tea in the row of simple shops. The night market in the south end of town is not as lively as Joan recalls. It's entertaining nonetheless. The covered food market is filled with delacies, steaming, bubbling, sizzling, frying, swimming, barking, various turtles, eel, fish, snails, dog and several I could neither recognize nor could Joan translate. We eat our fill while admiring the young Burmese cooks goofing behind their stalls. A guitar player approaches lugging an electrical amp. Regrettably Joan requests a song.
We climb into a taxi, "somewhere fun and lively," Joan asks in Chinese. The taxi pulls up to a glitzy hall of karaoke boxes. An attendant suggests we try Besata where, considering it's a Thursday night, I'm stunned to find a club absolutely jumping. To a corner of the disco a dancefloor rocks to 80s remixes. I join in the absurdity while Joan mopes by the bar nursing a beer. A big boned Burmese girl introduces herself and her friends. We all dance with big goofy smiles. She pulls me away from the music to a booth where her friends sit almost dwarfed by a tower of alcohol and fanciful sliced fruit platters. Joan finds me. "I'm leaving." Unbelievable! The guy parties every other night in the same bars with the same faces and given the opportunity to mix with a strange new crowd, he declines. An hour later I'm stinking drunk and manage to escape my new friends. "Just going to the washroom." I hail a cab and manage to find my way to Mandalay Garden where the gates are closed and concealed in a dense bamboo grove. It's a half hour before I manage the last hundred metres
to my bed.
Joan's in a mood the next day, acting poised, seated in the restaurant, drinking Dali, chain smoking, studying for his upcoming proficiency exam. I assume that he is pissed with me. I'd told him the day before after listening for too many hours to his depressing monologue that he was selfish. We stay put in the garden most of the day, a silence having descended over us heavier than the humidity. We do not share words until next day in the wee cold hours when passengers are ordered off the bus at one of three checkpoints along the highway into central Yunnan. The return journey takes over eighteen hours, two of which are spent sucking back beer and nibbling on peanuts while the guards check every nook and cranny of the bus for narcotics and pornography.
We return home to discover the aftermath of a tornado. Booze bottles and half empty glasses lie scattered, ashtrays sulk with a kitty litter of butts, gift wrap lies scrumpled about the floor. Like a meditation, or a cleansing, I start tidying the flat and discover Giorgio and Sergio sleeping on the sofas. I pile sergio's birthday gifts into
a corner of the room, including an impressive plastic lamp the shape of a nude cartoon man, his winky a perky switch. A lazy weekend ensues. The boys complain of hangovers, and share fragmented tales of the night before, random women, Slovenians void of humour. A bunch of us gather at Green Lake Park, Battista, Luca, Giorgio, Yoav, Joan & I, and Pawan at the end of his leash. There are few enough foreigners in Kunming that we are a sight. Generally, we don't like Luca who has nothing to add to conversation except to grumble and complain. We sit around a sleek table on a rooftop terrace in an expensive restaurant where the boys talk of pills and blowjobs. I feel akin to Luca, distancing myself from the conversation. I watch the ice melt in my cola.
So why, you must be wondering, do I stay company in Kunming with a group of chain smokers and E heads. Fair question. I've been traveling for four months on my own, meeting here and there for a day or two with enlightening or at least diverting company, fellow backpackers who likewise enjoy a pint and swap a tale. But I
crave escape from the round of hostels and banana pancake cafes, the chance to borrow a clean outfit - I mean really clean - and the opportunity to cook my own breakfast. As a child I owned a pillow case on which was printed the Peanuts characters, Charlie Brown, Sally, Linus, Snoopy... above whom black text read a piece of simple wisdom, Happiness is being one of the gang
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