Charlie is back on the bike and I’m out of the morgue ceremonially taking the front seat of the van that today seems a more comfortable beast than the one I remember. In the first few sweeping ribbons of road that carve their way elegantly around the hillsides my new found conflict raises its spectre for further digestion, the hillsides are pretty but I long for the seemingly lost pieces of the world that have been left alone. Casting my mind back to the long list of countries and their people we know I begin to shuffle the mental deck to find a home for my thoughts; Where in my own spectrum do they belong, why does my vision deliver a tinge of conflict to a beautiful scene? Where Nepal had a similar proliferation of terraced farming it was far more quaint and small scale but the difference here is the relentlessness of it that seems to refuse opposition not content with mere victory. Nepal countryside often showed a slice of land carved out to snuggle within the bounds of a bursting natural world, a sort of harmony filled any field of view.
Following the riders in the morning cool before another blistering day opposite hillsides delivers a monotony that rides into the distance over a horizon without a glance back, entire mountains of one plant in neat rows. In isolation a wonder, in repetition a machine. These hillsides speak of a life lived on the land, ironically close to nature, it’s admirable rather than distasteful but none the less it disconcerts me somewhat. I hunger for a world where the vines grow tall into the trees devoid of order and grand shiny leaves emerge into any nook to catch a drop of sunlight from a ground keeping its secrets tight below a carpet of chaos. China houses a staggering percentage of the worlds flora diversity; in this part of China using the present tense seems a mockery.
In the China I see, which is only a small part to be fair, it’s a little hard to hold tight to romance, amazement comes still in the guise of disbelief but not in the common ways we chase. Lunchtime is one of those times, a chicken has its neck unceremoniously twisted for our meal in about an hour and some vegetables are thrown in an outdoor wok far grander than any I’ve ever seen. Lunch promises to be, yet again, a bonanza beyond words but for now we’re off for a short hike to see a waterfall, could this be a gift of nature I dare to wonder? Up a hillside recently scarred to a bare road we wind on foot for longer than we were banking on so desperately looking forward to a small swim and to rinse our sweat soaked clothing. The sun punishes us on this road too new to foster any shady trees, the lure of some natural majesty the only shade we need.
A small path off the road delivers salvation, the trees close in and shade comes from outside our imaginations in a world with a floral diversity boldly daring to defy singularity. The heat seems like years ago as we hear the crashing water, the waterfall is close. So is the rubbish tip. Thank god there is no one else around to hear the filth that comes from my mouth, disappointment has a new definition. An open space reveals a campsite that like a forest floor keeps its secret but not from the tangle of life gone rampant, this time it’s a disrespect of nature that is rampant. Choking like the lungs of a lifetime smoker on their deathbed this waterway channels plastic and all other manner of shit, a deathbed is all I see as the days heat comes roaring back from the past. The waterfall itself is a grand one but a glance is all I can bear.
I turn immediately to brave the dusty road filled with a sadness I know I shouldn’t have but for a moment I wish not to dispel. Even Peru which sits for us as the filthiest place we’ve been seems to have some tiny idea of appreciating the more beautiful parts of our world. I guiltily wonder at the destruction to the minds of this nation from it’s political torture, surely seeing this place as beautiful must be a natural emotion? So many countries far poorer and with less means defy this ideal that seems to keep repeating itself here, I feel so guilty thinking it but this China I see so far just seems happy with the old saying: don’t shit in your own back yard. They just didn’t get the ‘Don’t’ part. Back at the lunch house and surrounded by more positive amazement, lunch, our guides tell us that it’s just that the government don’t have enough bins. Again I think of the peoples of the world with less means but cleaner lives as I silently reject this statement and turn the conversation to food.
The other side of the amazement coin continues to lay itself upon us, we are presented with chicken congee, our friend from before so freshly converted to food this can only be good, I say a private thanks. Chicken congee, or rice porridge, is a ceremonial dish here only cooked for major celebrations and high dignitaries, it’s delicious and the privilege is not lost on us. Vegetables, crispy pork, soups, omelettes and hundred year eggs make up probably the best feast we’ve had so far but it’s just a backdrop to the cicadas, yes we have whole fried cicadas. They look intimidating but they’re amazingly really nice, even my queasy tummy can’t resist. From one amazement to another I’m on an emotional roller-coaster of polar extremes, China is anything but middle-of-the-road: of any road.
The ups and downs continue in Bulangshan, a visit to a temple sees us in audience with a young monk. Filled with all the privilege we can’t fathom from our countries we see an inquisitiveness and boyish comfort that defies the immensity of his position as we see it. We ask questions and all lean in, soaking up every interpreted word. I’ve wondered about the designation of buddhism as a religion or a philosophy, it’s an open debate to me with a good argument either way. Where any religious figure, message or place has often felt like the emotional equivalent to an allergic rash to me I leave feeling warm, appreciative and all together itch free. The monk thinks it’s a philosophy and right now my mind rests without a challenge.
From one extreme to another I love China, I hate China, China upsets me and China amazes me. The people we have met so far have embodied warmth, kindness and displayed interest which to me nearly enough defines interesting. Recent history that runs up to today though has left its scars, less than half a century ago this nations people did their very best to destroy themselves on a personal level for the egos of one man in power. I make guesses here, I can’t see into minds, but the world I see displays the scars of a people thrown into the jaws of practicality devoid of space to breathe outward. But breathe they do, the smiles, the food, the wisdom of a young monk radiates against the absence of a victorious nature as humanity triumphantly claws its way back over a political elite that to this day keep a suppressive hand in place. The scars are there but the fruit of this huge land is still good, it’s maybe just a little bruised.