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Grey China Dreams

Concrete, not bamboo, represents the modern China.

Hefei at dawn can only be described as ugly. It’s a specific kind of ugly, though: a hopeless, gray kind of ugly that makes you think of life resembling death, something like a long, concrete sidewalk with no visible end and no visible reason for being there, a human invention that would have been happier had it never been thought up.

One thing that struck me and John as we got off the train was the vast quantity of empty space in the large square that fronted the station building. This was a place designed for an occupancy not yet achieved. Maybe the hope was that the ragged homeless people populating the square would disperse and some department store would come set up shop. I don’t know. I just know those homeless people looked pretty desperate. Within five seconds of our arrival in the city, we were being accosted. Then, in a perverse plot twist, the young beggar who was accosting us was accosted by an older beggar who apparently had already claimed begging rights. It was more than a little sad.

We accosted a convenience store and purchased two $1 umbrellas to protect us from the gray, fat droplets of rain that were falling from the gray sky onto the gray earth in a general display of excessive grayness. John’s umbrella broke immediately, so I went back into the store and returned it for him. The nice lady in the store suggested we buy a better quality umbrella.

The first thing me and John had to do was buy train tickets out of this place. In an amazing oversight, we had failed to do this before leaving Beijing. We found the station ticket office, which was already bustling. It was filled with people who looked like business people with nice clean starched shirts and people who looked about a step up from homeless. The ticket office was clean but it was dirty in a certain way that only China can be. It was a rough jagged crush of humanity or it was trying to be, because that is the way things are in China. I got to the front of the line to find out the only tickets left were luxury tickets. We could afford them, but we needed to go to the bank first.

We found a taxi and took a little spin through the city. Bicyclers wobbled down gray trash-filled corridors. We were surprised to see McDonald’s and KFC. Putting them here seemed like a bad joke. There was garbage blowing around. A few people huddled under the eaves of the shuttered buildings.

After getting money and taking the taxi back to the station we decided to take a walk around. The friendly pedestrians offered “hello” in their very best English. We smiled and said hello back. I was very hungry so we stopped at a food stand and I bought a piece of fried bread with a fried egg rolled around it. John bought some peaches, which were cheaper than in Beijing but rock-hard and inedible. The peaches went in the garbage and we sat down by the roadside to eat the fried egg and bread thing. Little by little morning was trickling in and the city was stirring.

John and I spotted a building which bore the Kodak logo but was a car wash. About twenty people in Kodak uniforms stood at attention in a straight line outside. They were getting ready to go to work, icons of counterfeiting. John took some pictures.

“What are we doing here?” I asked John.

“I have no idea,” he said. “This place is pretty depressing.”

“I don’t think it’s that bad,” I offered. But I wasn’t going to insist we stay.

An hour later we were on a bus on our way out of Hefei. There was only one other passenger, a severe-looking young woman wearing glasses. I guessed that she was a student. Then there was our driver, a gruff, silent man who chain-smoked, and a young, pretty attendant with a large mole on her cheek who wore too much eye make-up. The TV on the bus began to play a violent martial arts movie.

About a mile outside of town, the road began to deteriorate. It went from well-maintained to ragged patches of asphalt with no lane markings. A little ways further we turned onto a narrow path. We were outside the city now. Peasants hunkered down in ramshackle garages by the roadside. Farmers flogged water buffalo while they sloughed through mud. Everything was in a state of disrepair. The bus honked mercilessly at anyone and anything, including inanimate objects and things that did not seem to exist. We stopped at a couple other stations along the way and gradually the bus filled up. Sometimes people along the road would hail the bus and it would stop.

We went further and further into the interior. The towns we passed through became eerier. There were signs of civilization here, but they seemed out of place. Rust-covered factories burped smoke. The bus came to a long, long bridge that passed over a wide river. The river was choked with boats that bobbed on the water like fat slugs. They moved at a speed all their own. They were not accountable to anything. The water seemed to be possessed by a current that was very foreign. I do not know where it came from or where it went or why.

Finally we arrived at Jiuhuashan. We wanted to spend the night at a particular temple we had read about. It was cheap, and my friend who stayed at a Buddhist temple said it was the most amazing experience of his life. It changed him and he was tougher now. I wanted to know what that was like, and John did too.

We asked around at the temple for a room. We poked our heads into darkened rooms in search of whoever was in charge. In one of the rooms we found a monk who looked like he had slunk in and turned the lights off so he could hide from us. He had a very surly attitude.

“Do you have any rooms we can stay in?” I asked.

“No,” came the gruff reply.

A hotel tout had warned us about this; the temple didn’t want foreigners. So we decided to make our way around to a few hotels.

Jiuhuashan is an interesting place because it is both old and new, both connected and disconnected, both spiritual and commercial. The village itself sits at the foot of the mountains and is a haphazard assemblage of whitewashed buildings and winding stone paths. The streets are filled with the sounds of chanting and laughing and gently struck bells. The smell of incense follows you everywhere and reminds you that you that you are surrounded by places of worship. The shops full of small useless souvenirs are just as ubiquitous. There are some nice hotels in Jiuhuashan, with sparkling lobbies of chrome and glass and marble and rooms with air conditioning. We chose a place on the cheaper end of the scale. It still had A/C and a hot shower so we were happy.

We walked around to some of the various temples in town. Jiuhuashan is bursting at the seams with temples. We climbed the mountain by cable car because we were tired and listened to the monks chanting and beating on drums. It was very soothing. We asked one of the monks to take our picture. Then we made our way down the mountain by foot, which was a rather straining ordeal. We had some ice cream. We saw a couple of other white people. They carefully avoided making eye contact with us. John noticed that they were eating gorp, which is something backpackers eat. From their accents I guessed they were Irish. They were two men probably in their forties. I wondered if they had families, or if traveling the world eating gorp was what they did for a living, but we didn’t talk.

We asked the hotel owner if he could show us a good place to eat. He brought us to a shop owned by friends of his. You can see how this whole tourist industry works with people getting shuffled around by people who know people to places where they give up their money. The food was decent but on the expensive side. The beer did not taste very good.

We took a nap and ventured out from the hotel a little later to get something to eat again. We were browsing through a shop full of monk clothes when a girl stepped out of the trees by the shop entrance and introduced herself in English. Her name was Tiger. Two small boys swarmed around her attacking each other. Those were her students, she told us. She was here for the summer teaching English.

We walked around town with them through the mud paths and up, up a steep winding road that curved around the town. The back roads were very quiet. When we got to the top of the hill, we turned off into a park that was pitch black. Some people were walking around in it, but they were doing so with the aid of no light whatsoever. This looked a bit dangerous. I can’t imagine being in a park in Los Angeles with no light. It boggles my mind to think what sorts of iniquities would occur in a place like that. We stopped some people and had them take our picture in the darkness. On the way back to our hotel we saw some old women washing clothes by the side of the street. They seemed very content.

We got up the next morning to meet Tiger and the kids again. We learned that the father of one of the boys had designed most of the temples in town. After having tea at their apartment, which was cramped enough to necessitate the bed being placed in the kitchen, we went to view another one of the temples which had been closed the previous night. The amazing thing about this temple is that it really didn’t look like it had been designed so much as it had just emerged there as a natural part of the landscape. Moss grew up between the cracks in the carved stone steps, and the Buddha figurines in the dimly lit rooms were peaceful and dusty. Carp stirred in the pools in the courtyard. People stopped to drink the pure water that flowed into the pools.

We decided to take Tiger and the two boys out to eat. We let them choose the place. The food was marginal. The boys decided to have a food fight. We only stopped them when they began throwing hot water on each other. John and I figured that was a little too much.

At noon we rode the bus back down the mountain, down down down through the misty forest, back back back across the long long bridge, past the fields where the water buffalo and their keepers toiled, all the way to Hefei. It was late afternoon when we arrived. We had to transfer buses. Probably, the driver just thought it was too much of a pain to go all the way to the final station, the one we had departed from. We got onto the city bus. It was a nice bus. It even had a video screen. We were treated to an episode of Tom & Jerry. We stopped at a traffic light and noticed the bus next to us was also playing Tom & Jerry. The video was synced exactly. John and I mused about how this had been achieved.

We had Korean food and everyone in the place stared at us the whole time. I asked our waitress why everyone was so fascinated by our presence. Was it that few foreigners came to Hefei? No, she replied, that wasn’t it. Well then, what was it? She didn’t seem to be able to explain the attraction. I asked her if she was from Hefei, and she said no; she was a student here. She complimented my Chinese. I complimented her Chinese back. This confused her and made John laugh.

On the way back to the train station we stopped to take a walk through a park. In the park some people were playing the erhu and singing. The music was mesmerizing, a wash of rough, unrefined emotion. I have always felt that the erhu has a coarse sound but that it communicates emotion with the wonderful directness of a needle in the spine. It is a great timbre. The combination of this with an old woman’s high-pitched caterwaul is unmatched. Some old men smoked cigarettes and clapped their hands in time with the music. Gradually, night fell on Hefei.

The next morning the city would slowly come to life again. The Kodak people would line up outside the car wash, the commuters on their bicycles would wobble through the trash-filled alleys, the homeless people would harass the tourists and each other. Hefei was a big, gray, ugly, sleepy place. The people there were dreaming good dreams. As me and John left Hefei in the luxury train car, one thought stuck with me… I hope that city never comes awake.

Michael Day