A young man lifts my broken bicycle into his tiny red truck. The day is ending and he is heading towards town now, and he picks me up nonchalantly like all his other deliveries. The industrious little engine begins to buzz and cough, the wheels roll forward, and the man smiles.
You walk into a train station, let’s say in Changsha, and beyond the large words ‘Ticketing Hall’ above the entrance doors, there is no English written or spoken. You are met with a long hangar filled with a thousand echoes. The back wall is covered with an electronic timetable showing arrays of fire red Chinese characters, a code you can’t access. You think you’re a little smart and you’ve got a piece of paper with your destination written in Mandarin, as well as the words ‘tomorrow’ and maybe ‘please.’ You clutch this piece of paper with fierce conviction. You know it’s more of a security blanket, a life raft in a sea of questions practical and existential, and your first and last chance.
Some people turn away in my presence, but many are enthusiastic to help even if they are incapable of doing so. It seems that my goal today in the Changsha railway station is lofty and complicated; no one gestures to any direction or points to any line, they all seem to need to explain something. Maybe I am at the wrong station? Maybe there is no train at all. They seldom know any English and they most always look sorry for it. And I’m like, My God, I’m the alien here. I essentially dropped from the sky into the smack middle of China, and I chose to do so without studying Mandarin beforehand and, to be honest, with very little knowledge about the culture and way of life. This is all my fault, and now we’re standing there together and I’m making them feel bad for not being able to help me.
I’ve got to be better than I’ve been.
“We will find the good bank,” she says cheerfully and with determination. China has many a provincial bank with names like Fenghuang Rural Bank and Postal Savings Bank of China, most of which don’t recognize my American card. A young woman named Lin offers to escort us until we find one that works. A tourist in Fenghuang herself, Lin hops around, asking different locals where we could possibly get some cash. “He says it is far, one kilometer more. I will go with you.”
I linked up with two chill Polish guys; we decided to go exploring together. After a long series of convolutions and backtracking we arrived to a village twenty-five kilometers south of Fenghuang. This quiet place is home to a few dozen people at most. It is surrounded by a thick crumbling wall, a proper bastion for ancient malcontent intruders with a penchant for pillaging. Happily they let us three in for a small fee.
An old woman gestured towards stone steps; she wanted us to walk along the wall’s spine. On it we were among mossy tiled roofs and corn and chilies drying in the sun. An occasional cat darted away in our periphery, the infrequent curious face showed itself framed in a window or dashing through the alleys below; blink and you’d miss them. The place, inside and out, was teeming with hidden life but it felt abandoned, the paths scattered with debris and a deafening quiet. Through the large stone teeth on our right was a fine view of the Hunan countryside, at once still and swaying.
Centuries before the People’s Republic of China existed, most cities and many villages had such a defensive wall; the practice is as old as China itself. It was a way to establish dominions vast and narrow, protecting royalty, common people and their land from outsiders. Occasionally outsiders meant Mongol hordes, other times they meant interprovincial clashes and your random foreign aggressor. Beyond the practical, these walls, perhaps especially for smaller settlements, were symbols of independence and unity.
The sky rumbled as if giving a cue and soon the rain began to pound. The huge drops made craters in the soft earth, exploding clumps of dirt into the air. We climbed back down and sought haven under the main gate, sitting against colossal rusting doors that were permanently open, and next to some old men chatting and smoking together. The men communicated that they moved our bicycles into a dry shelter while we were gone. We waited together in a peaceful silence, the rain speaking for us.
There is a pregnant woman sitting on the side of the road. I gesture to my flat tire and hesitantly utter the words ‘bus station.’ She quickly runs away, yells something in the general direction of a two-story house. A face emerges in the second floor window, yells something back, and the pregnant woman disappears around the corner. She soon returns, waddling towards us with a tire pump in her hands, lifting it high above her head in glorious victory. It is clear, though, the tire is fucked due to copious punctures throughout, the air whistling as it escapes. I turn my back and turn it again, and a young man lifts my broken bicycle into his tiny red truck.
I’m sitting among plastic crates stacked high and a bicycle with a lame tire. Clean mountain winds and a slowing heartbeat and a dying sun. Cars and scooters honk as they sail by, waving to the outsider in the pick-up, a boy reaches out for a high-five, everyone laughs for there is everything to laugh about.
There is no world to seize, we are at the whim of it. No clear destiny to realize, as our paths are decided just as much by others as ourselves. I’m lost here, I can’t read the signs. I’m floating through this mist, this beautiful mess, this fantastic dream in the only way I can manage, by holding onto someone and hoping they hold onto me back.∗