Monday, January 05, 2009

My Apologies

by Wilfred Bereswill

My apologies. My schedule turned busy this weekend and this morning I had an appointment to complete my severance from Anheuser-Busch. I dug through my archives and decided to leave you with a short story I wrote some time ago.

The following is a short story I wrote while on a particularly long trip in the center of China. It’s long, but I hope you enjoy it.

T.I.C.It’s a land shrouded in mystic, always luring the adventurous, but mostly out of reach. It’s a land deep in history–ancient history–as rich, as romantic, as bloody as that of Europe and the Middle East. It’s culture is deeply rooted in it’s past, but now change is running rampant over the land. This Is China or TIC.

It’s the largest English speaking country in the world and it’s not the United States. It’s the largest beer drinking country in the world, and it’s not Germany. It’s the fourth largest county in the world, area-wise, and the largest, population wise. It has 55 distinct ethnic minorities and over 200 unofficial dialects. T.I.C. or This Is China.

For six months, armed with a few polite, badly pronounced Chinese phrases, I had the pleasure of roaming through China with a small team to look at breweries for potential joint ventures. On this particular day, I find myself deep in the Shanxi Province, the fringe of China’s Wild West–a coal mining belt with few redeeming qualities. This day, was to be a travel day and what started out as a seven hour trip from LinFen to ZhenZhou City; ended up being a twenty-five hour quest to see Hukou Falls; the 2nd largest waterfall in China. On the map, it’s merely inches off the highway.

This is a large Jin Bei that we used on much of the trip. The actual Jin Bei for this trip was its baby brother.

We traveled for two hours on the main highway before deciding on the short scenic detour. That was four hours ago and we’re still climbing through the LuLiang Mountains. I ask our interpreter how to say, “Are we there yet?” in Mandarin, but somehow the humor is lost in translation. The main highway could be compared to a wide country lane by U.S. standards. The trail we are currently on alternates between one and a half lanes of gritty rock and dirt, to little more than a dusty earthen path beaten down by thousands of years of travelers afoot. It would be rough by four-wheeler standards, and we were, by no stretch of the imagination, in a rugged four-wheeler.

My three lao wai comrades (laowai is Mandarin for foreigner), two interpreters, two beer company representatives and a grumpy driver were stuffed into a Jinbei Minibus. Think 1960’s vintage VW Microbus and you’ve got a pretty accurate picture in your mind. I’m pretty sure this particular vehicle might have been comfortable in it’s day, but it’s day was about twenty years ago. The age of the bus is frozen in time since the speedometer reads thirty kilometers per hour whether we’re standing still or vibrating down the highway. Faded numbers on the odometer read two hundred thousand something, but they haven’t moved in years. The shock absorbers were, well, they weren’t absorbing anything. Two years later I still have the bruises on my ass to prove it.

Yet, there we were, three Americans in the bowels of China, trying to catch up to the keys on our laptop computers as they bounced on our laps; writing reports that would somehow have to be transmitted back to the states by the next morning. Al Gore didn’t exactly have China’s countryside in mind when he invented the internet. I hear a loud bang and a word I recognize as the Chinese version of “CRAP” and realize my interpreter dozed off just long enough to have his head thrown against the window as the bus rocked over another enormous rut. I decide to close the lid of my computer before vertigo completely overwhelms me and gaze out at the countryside.

By now we were testing the little Jinbei’s lawnmower engine, rattling and skipping a beat that must have been a fouled sparkplug. The road turns sharply to the sky as the valley behind us falls away. The scenery is that of an alien planet. The mountains rise in terraces like a giant’s staircase. Each terrace is riddled with monster-size mouse holes. Entire mountains had been chiseled down over thousands of years by a society that had no other choice but to pick out a living from the rocks. No mountain in sight was spared. The people here lived in dirt and indescribable poverty. As the path levels out, the bus driver shouts at the locals shuffling along, burdened by bundles of coal balanced on long sticks. A few lucky ones have scraggly mules or oxen to carry their load. Old men amble alongside encouraging the beasts wielding whip-like sticks in their weathered hands. There are no villages in sight, so I can’t figure out where these people were going. This is China.

Everything here is veiled in black dust from the mines. The air is thick with it and many of the locals wear black-stained cotton masks or wrap dirty cloths over their nose and mouths to filter out the carbon particles. The driver balances the Jinbei on a ridge between two mountains weaving in and out of the pedestrians, laying on his horn and shouting, while I close my eyes pretending not to see the thousand foot drop-offs on either side. The Chinese don’t have the equivalent of DOT or OSHA, so guardrails don’t exist. Finally, the road turns to hug the face of the next mountain and we veer close to one of the chiseled terraces riddled with human-size mouse holes. These near-perfect arches act as the structural support to keep the mountain rock from crashing inward. Odd black wisps of smoke curl from each burrow and drift upward.

Before today, I’ve said many times, that nothing I see in China surprises me, thus our invented term, This Is China or TIC for short. Today is a first…well a first since the last time something really threw me for a loop in China. As the bus bounces by the mouse holes, I begin to make out the shapes of families huddled around small piles of burning coals for warmth in the back of each. I looked around to see my fellow lao wais are as saucer-eyed as I am. It finally hits me that there are thousands of people walking about and not a single brick and mortar structure in sight.

The mouse holes that began as coal mine shafts had been converted to living quarters for the workers. The fortunate had scrounged pieces of corrugated metal or scrapes of wood to tilt up at the openings shielding them from the wind and rain. The wealthy families near the road had all the luxuries in life, a custom fit wooden doorway at the front, a stove pipe to carry out the noxious black soot, and electricity. The electricity is stolen directly from the main power line secured high on utility poles.

The method is quite simple method if you’re lucky enough to forage some electrical wire and scrounge up a bicycle chain. You break the chain, tie the wire to it and throw it up until the chain wraps around the power line. After enough tugs, the chain cuts through the insulating rubber on the power line and you have free electricity for your hovel. However, if the clever thief is unlucky, the power line is high voltage and the family erects a burial wreath at the site. I’m told this is quite common throughout the countryside.

In the upper right corner you’ll see a bicycle chain splice.

As the bus ride continues through the mountaintop village, the scene gets more bizarre. One man is using a chisel and sledgehammer to enlarge his cave. By the decorations and signs it seems his son just got married and the family needs more space to grow. This family must be wealthy, as they have cot-like beds along the walls and a door in their cave’s wood facade. These people live on the ground floor, because on the next terraced step above them, there are more mouse holes. I count five terraces and each is riddled with holes. Leave it to the Chinese to invent high-rise caves.

Suddenly my cell phone buzzes; startling me from my gaze. This is China. Hundreds of miles from civilization and the cell phone service is flawless. I flip open the receiver and hear my wife’s static-ridden voice. Before I can describe what I’m seeing, she goes into a diatribe on her hard day and how the garage door opener broke and how she had to use her key to go inside the house and how she broke a fingernail opening the garage door manually. At this point, all I hear is yada, yada, yada and I feel like shouting into the phone, “Sorry, I’m going into a tunnel.” Instead, being the insensitive jerk, that she later called me, I tell her that there are thousands of people living in caves here and they would die to have a door, let alone one that opens at the push of a button. I actually hear myself say, “Get over it and call a repairman.” Thank God I lost the signal shortly after that remark and we continued to bounce along the mountain trail.

Next came the “Sign”. No, not a sign from God, but a road sign with a unique English interpretation. Okay, again, I’ll remind you that we are hundreds of miles from civilization and I’m pretty sure that even the most adventurous Westerner wouldn’t be driving this path, but there it was, in Chinese characters and English: “Easy hair of front trouble, large carry the heavy vehicle.” We all laughed until we understood what it meant. “Easy Here, Trouble Ahead, Large Vehicles Carrying Heavy Loads.” As the tiny Jinbei rounded the curve, there it was. A massive truck, taking all but a few feet of the available trail.

The cunning truck driver immediately swerved to the face of the cliff, leaving the outside and a thousand foot drop, sans guardrail, for us to negotiate. There were a few words and gestures exchanged between the drivers as the Jinbei inched along the cliff face. A miracle moment later it was all over and we were descending into the Huang He valley. That’s the Yellow River.

It’s now been eight hours. Those few inches on the map took six hours to negotiate. As the Jin Bei grinds to a stop, we crawl out to solid footing and take in the scenery. Odd, that we’ve come all this way to see the second largest waterfall in all of China and, stretched out alongside of us, is a mile-wide dried-up river bed with nothing that resembles a waterfall in sight, and we can see up and down the valley for miles. We all thought it, “Where’s the waterfall?” Finally someone dared to ask. “Waterfall is still a few more kilometers. We will have a break here at the Jin Pu Hotel.” There is a unified sigh of relief, both for the opportunity relieve ourselves and that we hadn’t spent eight hours of hell for nothing.

Jin Pu Hotel

After a short potty break; thank God for western style toilets; it was back in the bus. Chinese toilets are a whole other topic. We bounce down the road for about a mile and pull to a stop next to a cute, petite young woman with an orange coat, wielding a megaphone. But the scenery hadn’t changed and the same thought comes rushing back. “Where the hell is the waterfall?”

The little tour guide raised her megaphone and with a loud screech, started a well-rehearsed speech. Her first interpreted words were, “Sorry, no water.” “What the f…?” A loud, confused discussion in Mandarin erupts and the corrected version is repeated, “Sorry LOW water.”

Still, we look around. The ticking of the bus engine as it cooled signals that we have arrived, and no sign of a waterfall. But there, across the dried up riverbed is a raised concrete walkway to… well… to nowhere. The walkway ended about a hundred yards from where we stood, but sure enough, our tour guide, talking excitedly into her megaphone, started down the path to nowhere. I turned around to see that most of our Chinese hosts decided to hang back to let us discover things on our own. I have this nagging feeling that this was all a huge, cruel joke. So there we were, our Chinese tour guide, shouting into her megaphone to a lone interpreter, who then had to shout to translate what she said to the three intrepid lao wais walking on a raised concrete pathway to nowhere, inches above a mile-wide, dried-up riverbed to see what seemed to be a phantom waterfall.

As our guide continues her well-practiced speech, as we reach the end of the concrete to be met by a dirty, yellow-tinged, jagged icepack. It’s been a very cold winter and the ice has jammed up here. Undeterred by the seemingly insurmountable obstacle, we throw caution to the wind, along with every ounce of common-sense we possess and pick our way along the silt-crusted ice without any clue as to how thick it is or whether we’ll disappear into the icy water below.

Twenty yards further, our little guide stops abruptly, hands out as if trying to regain her balance and shouts. “Louk ie, louk ie!” It took us a moment to realize she was actually speaking English. She pointed out across the expanse of ice to a faint mist rising from the ground. At the same time, I noticed an almost imperceptible vibration in the ice and a low pitched, steady rumble sounded in my ears. Our pace quickened and the low rumble increased to a deafening roar. Still, except for the mist rising, there was no sign of the 2nd largest waterfall in China.

We climb up and over a particularly gnarly mountain of ice and there it is. Hukou Falls. Not anything like I expected, but magnificent, none the less. Again, it’s difficult to find the words to paint a picture in your mind, but it’s as if we stepped back millions of years and were witnessing the Colorado River just beginning to carve out the Grand Canyon across the high plains of northern Arizona. Millions of gallons per minute of yellow-streaked, abrasive water from the Yellow River plummet almost four-hundred feet to the bottom of an inner-canyon no more than a hundred feet across. The awesome power of the river found a weak spot; a crack in Mother Earth; to exploit and worked at it with tireless fury. I stood on a shelf of ice, twenty-feet thick, on the edge of the raging abyss, mesmerized by the sight.

Hukou Pubu translates to Kettle Spout Falls. The yellow, silt-laden water funnels into the canyon in dramatic fashion, throwing up a mist that transforms into a light show of shifting rainbows above. The sound is deafening and the feel is powerful as the rumble resonates through our bodies. Thank God the ice is gritty, as we are drawn in by the magnificence and find ourselves standing on the edge of the ice shelf. One slip and there would be more room in the Jinbei on the ride back.

The next surprise clomps up from behind. A very elder man looking like pictures I’ve seen of Genghis Khan with a long thin mustache, blending with his flowing, grey beard. But this man was skinny as a rail under his shabby course clothes and carried a handmade long-stemmed pipe. A ragged mule stood behind the man wearing a colorful blanket, harness and saddle. We were witness to the famous donkey of Hukou. We knew the donkey was famous because it was embroidered in English on his blanket. For a mere 5 RMB; that’s about sixty-five cents; you could mount the donkey for a quick ride on the jagged chunks of ice and take a picture with your own camera. We found that this was one of eight donkey men that live in Zhongshi Village. They make the journey daily to the falls and earn a nice living. Several have even purchased motorcycles. This is China.

Not many westerners make it to this remote region and we drew quite a crowd as children flocked around us to say “Hello” and ask for money. After ten minutes of handing out Chinese coins and saying “hello” over and over again, our beer company delegation comes to our rescue and we say goodbye to the incredible site. We pick our way back across the ice field and prepare for another 6 hour butt-numbing ride back to the highway. The bus stops again at the Jin Pu Hotel and out hosts inform us that they have arranged a special surprise. The Mayor of Hukou Village heard of our visit and insisted on having dinner with us.

The dining room was clean but spartan. A round table dominated the room and centered on the table’s large lazy Susan was a beautiful centerpiece of birds and flowers freshly carved from local vegetables. Special occasions in China call for unusual food; fried scorpions, and spicy fried cicadas for appetizers, soft-shelled turtle (just like it came from the water) served over a bed of rice noodles along with various servings of vegetables and meats for a main dish and egg white ducks floating on fish soup for a finale. Copious quantities of beer slammed down in Gan Bei toasts were followed by locally made apple wine. Two hours later as the sun dipped below the mountains, we bid Zai Jian to the Mayor and pile back in the Jinbei for the treacherous ride back, this time under the veil of darkness.

How about a nice dish of fried scorpians for the ride back. You can get it in a “To Go” box.


Joyce Tremel said...

Once again, you had to gross me out with the fried scorpions.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating, Will. I think I could handle everything but the food -- sometimes I am so glad to be a vegetarian. We don't even have to taste the haggis!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

As you can see from the pictures, the story follows the actual trip.

Joyce, scorpians taste better than fried cicadas.

Gina, you may have a tough time in China. They use a little meat in a lot of dishes.