Travel Journals - China - 1987

excerpt from China Pennywalk

The Village in the Countryside

June 16

There's only a pile of suds on the ground now to mark the spot where the woman was scrubbing her clothes in the mountain stream that flows through the channel across from the hotel. A tall, balding man rolled up his pants to make them shorts and bathed his legs in the cool muddy water. A man walks past with two large empty straw baskets balanced on either end of a pole resting on his shoulders. People pass, pulling empty carts behind them. It's the end of the day for some, not for others, for this is the peak of the harvest season. A young man whips his mule, cart speeding up. A stream of carts passes now, heavy with hay, drawn by human beings, mules, cows, tractor engines. Wheat is spread on pavement, on dirt.

A car is passing by, a cow walks in front, toot, the cow panics. A baby cries. A woman in a straw hat and blue pants and jacket carries a hatchet that isn't a hatchet, it must be for tilling. A boy hugs a baby. The mountain stream rushes past, sounding like endless rain.

Threshing wheat photo linl

This is a village of haystacks at harvest time, haystacks standing still, haystacks moving through in carts on their way to the machine that cuts the stalks to simplify threshing, miles of road piled high. Peasants use shovels to throw batches into the air, and the breeze separates the wheat from the chaff. We stroll through a grain rain a grain rain, a drizzle of wheat, the kernels spread on the pavement, driven over by bikes and occasional buses and trucks, lovingly raked, grain rearranged till free of straw, we walk down grain street. Then it's swept into piles, scooped into sacks. The process we haven't seen is the grinding. We certainly take part in the eating.

June 18

I'm sitting on a stone at the corner where the village's two paved roads cross, my back supported by a wall. At least twenty people surround me, trying to communicate. I say, Wo bu dong, I don't understand, and they say Ta bu dong, she doesn't understand, bu dong, bu dong, ah, bu dong. The crowd is growing, looking through my notebook. An old man takes my pen and writes some Chinese characters on his palm. He can't believe I don't understand. God, is it a shame.

A woman with an albino baby is relieved to see my blond hair. Wow, are the children beautiful as they smile at me. These curious onlookers would be shocked if they knew I'm writing in a shorthand script I invented myself. A woman with long wavy hair is squatting a yard away, staring at me. A few yards further a man squats on a cloth piled with string beans, white melons, and cabbages. Cabbages are sold at three corners in fact, not that there are corners at all; the edge of the pavement unevenly becomes clay. Now he's tying cabbage leaves and green onions onto the back of a bike.

Even this smallest of villages is swarming with activity. Except I'm discovering it isn't as small as we thought. There are hundreds of connected brick houses with sloping tile roofs.

The hotel hasn't changed very much since Adolph and I were here with our children two years ago. The outhouse looks rebuilt. To get to it, we have to pass a police dog who barks so ferociously that neither of us dare pass him alone. Yesterday he broke his rope and dashed towards me. I screamed, he stopped inches from my leg, and everyone came running out. Now that I know my voice intimidates him, I yell at the dog whenever he barks. Sometimes he doesn't bother. Even so, if either of us awaken during the night, we pee in a cup.

We love staying at this hotel; I don't even know its name. There's no running water, the beds are straw mats, the pillows filled with straw. The ceiling's made of mats, too, held in place by a bamboo grid, naked light bulb suspended from the center. The floor's concrete and possibly spit on by every occupant but us. We both sleep better here than anywhere else in China.

June 22

Once a year Buddhists from all over the province come here to climb Nanwutai, and this is the week. Occasional pilgrims, mainly old women with walking sticks and straw hats, trekked past the hotel this morning. We went up the mountain, too, by truck, with Mr. Ho and Mr. Fan, who manage the three-room hotel, Mr. Mao, the only person in the village who speaks English, and Mr. Mao's mother. Ours was to be a lazy man's pilgrimage. We'd ride up, eat lunch at the top monastery, then walk down along the path, about thirteen kilometers. We'd be back in the early afternoon, according to Mr. Mao. However, rock slides blocked the road, and we had to walk the final kilometer to the parking lot, up a narrow, treacherous, spectacular path, upwards, upwards, stark, steep drops on either side.

A little further up from there we'd see the monastery where we planned to eat lunch. Except it wasn't a little further. It was somewhere beyond trees and clouds and mountain ledges.

"It's only a thirty-minute climb," said Mr. Mao.

"You mean thirteen minutes?" I asked. No one had mentioned climbing.

"No, thirty."

Adolph has a foot problem; he'll take an elevator one flight rather than use steps. And now he was confronted with rocks of every size and shape, thrown together every possible way, at every possible angle, to more or less imitate steps, narrow steps, no banister, only infinity at the edge.

Infinity is breath-taking, especially when obscured by patches of fog, nearby trees in dark clumps, more distant trees lighter, lighter as they sink lower in our range of vision or disappear altogether.

No elevators here, only steps changing to muddy paths changing to steps, always steeply leading up. Every hundred yards or so, Adolph would stop and say, That's it. I'd say, Good, there's no reason for you to go all the way.

Mr. Fan, as at home as a mountain goat, scrambled up, then down, incredulous that we were taking at least two hours to climb from the parking lot to the mountain top, only three kilometers.

I kept reminding Adolph that he's not used to so much exercise, not used to thin air, we could bring food down to him. He'd agree, rest, then decide to finish what he'd started. I, too, gasped for breath, wondering if my hormones still protect my heart.

Mr. Mao paused on a ledge about eighteen inches wide to discuss something with his mother. I was standing behind him, waiting, looking down into the clouds, becoming more and more aware of where I was, path muddy, slippery, uneven, rocks rising sharply on one side, nothing on the other except beauty, foggy and vast, "I think we should move, Mr. Mao."

"Oh, are you feeling sick?"

"In a sense."

He grasped my hand and led me to somewhat safer ground, though every inch of the path was slippery from fog and drizzle.

After that either Mr. Mao or Mr. Fan insisted, though insistence was unnecessary, on holding my hand wherever they felt in danger of losing me. They tried to hold Adolph's, too.

"I don't know why, I have to do things for myself," said Adolph, resting, plodding, debating whether or not to continue.

We'd climb up the misty mountainside, then come to a landing where before the Cultural Revolution a temple had stood. There had been over seventy, now there are fewer than ten.

On one landing an old monk was squatting, surrounded by bundles. Each year he and his followers camp for a week on the spot where his temple had been. Young people carry blankets, tents, food, water, chairs, up paths so tenuous I was thankful I hadn't brought my camera. It might have tipped the balance.

Eventually we heard voices in the distance, the first sign that we might make it. We came to normal, even steps and then to an arched portal, Mr. Fan had donated the bricks and tiles to rebuild it. Finally we were on level ground, a terrace with monks and pilgrims squatting or sitting on low stools and drinking tea.

A few steps up, and we were in a monastery dominated by shiny, brightly-painted buddhas. Mr. Ho and Mr. Fan kowtowed, and even Mr. Mao, a non-believer, knelt before the buddha where young couples pray to have a son. No buddha for daughters, no one prays to have them.

Before we left, a monk inscribed onto a scroll our names, transliterated into Chinese characters, and the amount of money we'd stuffed into the collection box.

Noodles in a vinegar soup, cabbage, steamed bread, and tea, everyone teasing Adolph about his speed, telling him to take better care of himself, they'd thought I'd be the one who might not make it. I was thinking we hadn't made it yet, lots of ledges still to go between the top and bottom.

"Down is harder than up. Do you agree?" Mr. Mao asked me, as we started out again. I knew what he meant; it's too easy to get overconfident. I had to remind myself to go slowly. It was raining now, even more dangerous. I accepted all hands held out to me.

Adolph exclaimed that he'd found a good way to use his walking stick, putting his weight on it, really simplified walking down. Two minutes later, it broke, and he landed on his rear, very lucky considering all the alternate landing sites.

Pilgrims pass each other on the path, Wumetafu, May Buddha be with you. Wumetafu, I'd say. Their faces would light up and, hands in prayer position, they'd bow slightly and reply, Wumetafu, warmth pervading the mountainside.

It's evening now, and sitting on the balcony watching life in the street below seems unbelievable. Everyone's relaxing after a long day, grandfathers loitering, carrying their grandbabies, a woman passes with two baskets of straw, a man leads his goat, someone else a cow. The girl washing her jacket in the stream is the girl I was drawing last night. People stand below the balcony and stare up at me. I smile back. Cartloads of wheat sacks pass each other. Here's another grandfather, with a child at each hand, someone else with arms full of cabbages. People chat. Most adults are with children, holding them or at least touching. An old lady passes with a long straw broom. Haystacks are still in the road though the harvest season's winding down. A little girl carries a baby.

I can see into the house across the way, boy sitting on mother's lap. Now he's outside holding both his father's hands. Here's a boy about five carrying a tiny baby. Now a mother's arranging the slit in her baby's pants. There's lots of loving contact, physical contact, as much as anyone might want, or need. Whereas our babies at one or two are running all over exploring the world, Chinese babies that age and older are almost constantly held in someone's arms. A little girl jumps over the handles of a cart. A truck-driver blasts his horn. Someone carries a wooden pitchfork, more baskets of hay. Three children squat at the edge of the stream, looking for a green ping pong ball. Now the parents are looking. A little girl wades in and gets it. A baby plays with the steering wheel of a parked tractor engine, empty baskets, sacks of wheat...

Later. Nothing like this has ever before happened to me, though it's happened about ten times in the last half hour. I'm in bed right now, exhausted. And each time I fall asleep, I'm about to step onto a narrow path, very narrow, steep steep drop on either side, no bottom in sight no bottom in sight. I wake up immediately, heart pounding.

Before bed last night Adolph and I took a final walk through the village. A woman tried hard to talk with us, pointing to a haystack, then towards the mountains. We couldn't figure out what she wanted. A man stopped and indicated he had seen me drawing earlier that day. He too was trying hard to ask me something, gesturing, miming, not succeeding. I stood there frustrated, our last chance, if only Mr. Mao would come along. And he did.

Once people realized we had an interpreter, a crowd gathered, incredibly eager to talk, telling us that if we come there not knowing the language, they can only communicate with their fingers, and we don't seem to understand. And it's true, a lot of people had tried to talk with us in Nanwutai. All they could do was point to the mountain to ask if we'd climbed it, and that's not what they really wanted to ask.

The woman pointing to the haystack wanted to know if we had haystacks in our country. The man who had seen me drawing wanted to know my profession. A woman nursing a baby said we can come here, but there's no way in the world that they can go to America. They wanted to know how we could get away from work; they don't have such long vacations.

One man said that he saw us with our three children walking along the road in 1985, and I took a picture of him. So there, we think we're clicking away and no one gives a damn, and it isn't true. In fact this trip I've found it more difficult than ever to photograph people. I can't stand making them feel like curiosities.

Why don't your children live with you?

Because they lead their own lives, I replied.

Then who takes care of people when they're old?

That's a serious problem, I replied.

When you're old and can't work, how will you get money?

Do you have the same food in your country that we have here?

How do farmers farm? Can they use machines when they're farming on the mountainside?

Strange, how electric the crowd was. I hadn't realized, hadn't fully understood till that moment, the degree to which they longed to know about the outside world, pushing, everyone talking at once, "Why did you come here without an interpreter?" mainly young men, "Could I get a job if I came to your country? Would I have to have some sort of plan?"

"Why did you come to Nanwutai?" someone asked. "If you could come to my country to see how we live, I'm sure you would. I had the opportunity to come here to see how you live, so I came."

"When do you leave?"

"Tomorrow morning." I felt as if I were betraying them, giving them a taste, then leaving.

We were standing in the dark in the middle of the road, people questioning, Mr. Mao answering, sometimes not bothering to translate, I insisting that he tell us the questions. Suddenly a truck's headlights jerked us into the real world.

I wanted to continue, to talk all night, but Adolph and Mr. Mao were both ready to fall asleep. I'll have to go back, that's all, I'll have to go back to finish that conversation.


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