In Yangshuo, a tiny town nestled into the surrounding karst mountains, near meandering rivers not far from Guilin, I stayed at a hostel outside of town, down a dirt track road that was unlit at night. I was picked up by the hostel owner, Ahlong, in a contraption that was half-wagon, half-bicycle, past the river market and out to the rice fields, sunflowers growing by the side of the building. I took a bicycle and rode miles out through the countryside, to see a mountain with the shape of a moon cut out of it, to see lotus gardens that you pay 3rmb to walk through, to eat 豆腐花, and pass a river full of bamboo rafts and mountains jutting out everywhere. On the way back, the night was lit only by the headlights of the few cars that passed by and some shining signs of restaurants. I stopped, tired and sweaty, at a small restaurant that sold only Guilin Mi Xian, a type of local rice noodle dish, with pickled vegetables and nuts that you spoon on yourself. The way back to town reminded me of the mountains of Sedona, going from one bright spot to the next, with darkness in between or of driving in Nevada, the dark spaces only broken by the bright lights of casinos. There is a darkness there that doesn’t happen in the areas of New York where I am from.
After rock climbing one day (Yangshuo is, after all, one of Asia’s climbing destinations,) my guide, Jason, took me to a restaurant specializing in clay pot dishes and a local hangout spot for climbers. There, the chef/owner, when he found out I was researching Chinese folktales, told me that if I came for dinner, he’d tell me the story of the local specialty of 啤酒鱼 or beer fish. But that night, instead, there were German climbers who told me about mysterious climbing caves with names like treasure cave and bamboo cave. The next day I rode out to the Yulong River and tried to find the caves but with the heat pounding down and my lack of water and shoddy directions, I was out of luck. An artist with my last name gave me a ride on his scooter through the adjacent town and into Yangshuo, avoiding the crowds at the river market who would get off the boats and buy the knick knacks and clothes at the stalls, back to the clay pot restaurant where I was finally told the story of the beer fish dish. A simple story (an accident of beer dropping into the wok while the fish was cooking) but nice to hear from a local.
From Guilin, I took a 25 hr train ride to Chengdu, hard seat because the sleepers had been sold out long before. It was the only train connecting the two cities and the aisles were filled with bags, with children, with adults sitting on makeshift stools. Across the aisle, a family of five, the children two boys and a girl but the girl was the center of attention, all sass as she haggled with the train crew who sold toy trains and toothbrushes. How about I buy one and you give me two free?, she asked. Later on, the women with seats would take her on their laps, take photos with her, ask her, “Do you want to come live with us?” She had that sort of charm. The man sitting next to me, on the other hand, when I asked what he had been doing in Guilin, told me, in low tones, that he was a 骗子. A scammer.
Funny that he would feel the need to confide and explain, in the face of my confusion. I didn’t quite know what kind of scam he was running but he felt the need to explain, despite the fact that those across from us could probably overhear him and that I only knew half the words he was using. What I got: some sort of internet scam that had fallen through in Guilin. Enticing young men to give girls money on QQ. He asked me if I used the internet often and I said, not really. He nodded, said, good. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there. He’s just looking out for me. But I spent the entirety of the ride cautious, as my ankles swelled a little from sitting too long, as we shuffled from the bathroom and back, as he asked me about the book I was reading (written in English) and yet, seemed to somehow miss the fact that I was a foreigner. There was little sleep and the journey took longer than it should have. I’d tried to get a last minute sleeper by queuing up and placing my name on the list but there was never one open. But in the end, nothing happened. We said goodbye and we left, so many of my questions still unanswered about what exactly he did but still, there was trust there, in the telling and in the accepting.