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Vivid Shades of Grey

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S: Vivid Shades of Grey Simon Dunne

FC: Vivid Shades of Grey A Journey Through Asia | Simon Dunne

1: A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring -Thoreau

3: On we trudge. Walking like this, for walking’s sake, is a strange concept to the locals. But the steady stream of tourists passing through their mountain villages in the Annapurna range has brought relative prosperity, so they tolerate us. Despite its often desolate wilderness, this is quite clearly the road, the Himalayan Highway. It became clear to me when I asked our guide how long it took to get from his mountain village to Kathmandu; "Eight days" he replied. A combination of trekking, driving, and bus. The Nepali triathlon. Nevertheless, life happens here, so the trail conveys. Us tourists march from teahouse to teahouse, enjoying the basic comfort of the road side stop. Foam mattresses cradle our weary bones, and dal bhat, the local dish of lentils and rice, fills our grumbling stomachs. Each morning we continue our climb - this is some of the best and most challenging trekking in the world. Snow-covered peaks at every turn will us up one steep slope after another, while lush rainforest treats us to the enveloping sound of cicadas and birds. When the vistas fall prey to the clouds (every afternoon reliably), our eyes turn back to the Highway. School children, a sea of navy blue ties and skirts, giddily bound up the eternal stone steps that have reduced even the fittest tourists to drooling sloths. This is the daily commute, five hundred metres straight up at an altitude of 5000 metres. The children laugh and play as they go, unintentionally mocking our inadequacy. While their youthful energy may be excused, there is no comprehending the eighty-year-old woman who does the same. | As evening approaches we reach our next tea house, a day’s worth of steps higher, discovering that comfort is inversely proportional to altitude. With no roads in sight, that observation should have been obvious. Still, impressive luxury considering. The tourist trade compels the constant movement of goods, everything from chickens to tanks of gas. To the furthest reaches they go, ensuring we're provided some semblance of the comfort we’re used to, even at great heights. Teams of mules, their bells jingling, push us aside as young boys urge them forward with sharp yells and smacks of bamboo sticks. The reluctant beasts trudge on. Perhaps the mules feel some comfort knowing that the same fate awaits their master. On cue, a massive basket, overflowing with iron cooking equipment, ample bags of rice, and cases of bottled water, flies by me in a blur; all by itself. On closer inspection, I notice something under the basket - a pair of tanned twig-legs and wide callused feet jammed into cheap Chinese flip flops.

4: They belong to a young Nepalese boy, half my size, carrying twice my weight at twice my speed; all from a strap wrapping the basket around his forehead. He is the 16-wheeler of the Himalyan Highway, transporting goods anywhere they need to go. And where they need to go is up. Up to the barren far reaches of the trail, where local production is all but impossible. He's not alone; a constant stream of baskets cruises past me as the day wears on. I feel soft. The lucky ones have cracked into the cushiness of the tourist industry. Porters trade in their baskets for the heaping bags of three overpacked Westerners, not to mention their own pack, which, despite the cold nights, doesn't seem to contain shoes or socks. They grin the whole way along. We walk together, through the front yards of patient farmers, cheerfully offering a melodic 'namaste!' as we pass. The farmers humour us in response - they know the importance of tourism in these parts. Our pace is slow, influenced by life in the mountains. It's hard work living here, but people seem happy. Unlike much of Nepal, clean water flows from the snowy peaks, and for the most part, the ground is lush and fertile. And anything they lack, well, it's a just a quick eight days down the Highway.

7: On my last day in Nepal, as I stood waiting for Bishnu outside the post office in downtown Kathmandu, I knew what my evening had in store - a traditional meal at a nice restaurant and a farewell to my local friend. But when Bishnu showed up on his puttering scooter with Dinesh, a young boy from his orphanage, my expectations drifted away into the smoggy air. Dinesh had been poked in the eye by a stick, the flailing sword of a hyperactive five year old during a school recess break. An unfortunate case of boys being boys, but nothing some eye drops from the local pharmacist couldn’t take care of. Bishnu stated it confidently, acting mother. With fifteen kids in his care, he’s been known to act mother, father, sibling, teacher, chef and colonel in a single day. A slight detour, a quick conversation with a pharmacist, and we’d be off to our dinner. We hurried to a nearby street stall pharmacy. Bishnu rambled quickly in Nepalese amidst scattered boxes and bottles, and then listened patiently to the steady authority of the white coat. Dinesh and I stood by; the boy was silent but fearful as he clutched my hand, desperate for reassurance, even from the white stranger towering over him. The conversation ended and Bishnu turned to me, “we need to go to the hospital”, he said flatly. No further explanation. Somehow I suspected there was no more information to know. So off we went, three of us crammed onto Bishnu's scooter, Dinesh perched up front, me hanging off the back. He weaved through the crowded streets like a slalom skier, on the brink of recklessness, but feathering the brake and tapping the horn with practiced precision. I squeezed my lanky legs in tight to avoid contact with the buses that brushed by like gates on the slopes. We somehow made it alive. This was my first visit to a Nepali hospital. I’d seen pictures and knew it would be shocking. After all, Nepal is poor; tenth poorest country in the world actually. And nowhere is poverty more obvious than in a health care system. But as images and stories can never truly capture the majesty of the Himalayas, so too they weakly prepared me for the desperation of a Kathmandu hospital emergency room. Still, thanks to our prompt payment, we were quickly escorted ahead of waiting masses to a doctor. He stood in a corner of the large common room surrounded by anxious patients, dolling out treatment like food rations. Bishnu pushed his way through the crowd and managed to finagle five seconds of attention. The doctor glanced at Dinesh and with quick a wave of his hand dismissed us to the children’s hospital on the other side of town. Visit over. No refund. Our stomachs rumbled as we returned to the streets. We arrived, alive, after twenty minutes of road-eo, my knuckles white and frustrations rising. But the story at the children’s hospital we’d heard before. Pay the fee. See the doc. Can’t help you here. I was absolutely incensed by the goose chase. A poor kid with a simple, but time sensitive eye injury and we were being sent away again, cast off to a third hospital. I thought about how I might react to this outrage in Canada - I am a very important person, obviously, and very important people don’t get screwed around. I would complain, raise my voice, threaten legal action; and eventually my expectations would be met. Even if only to shut me up. But here I was a just a lowly tourist, and so, deferred to Bishnu and Dinesh for some indication of how to react (probably the first time I’ve purposely mirrored the behaviour of a five year old), and since neither of them seemed the slightest bit phased, I kept my big Canadian mouth shut.

8: So, calm and collected, we flopped onto the bike, off to Nepal’s primary public hospital, the Teaching Hospital. And true to its name, it taught me a thing or two about this country. The emergency ward here made the others look like fine New York hotels. Lineups and service windows greeted us, spread below dusty portraits of Hindu gods and government officials. Frail bodies waited patiently to hand over their fee and be granted entry through the once pearly white gate, long rusted. Moving quickly, Bishnu scuttled past the lineups, soothed the waiting guard and led us into the main ward. The instant we passed through that gate, a deep sadness welled within me. A dozen beds were strewn around a bare room, three Nepalese curled together in each. With nowhere to sit, their loved ones stood, filling the room like a bus at rush hour. We approached an L-shaped counter top staffed by two frantic administrative workers buried in a mess of paperwork. People fought their way to the front of the crowd, three deep at the counter, to register their injured and sick, as college kids vie for the attention of an overworked bartender. Doctors, oddly calm, navigated the tense crowd with ease. Patients would follow them with their eyes, their mouths shut, quietly praying for their turn. Bishnu, obviously experienced, was quick to work us through the red tape. He ushered us to a bed, in total control of his two dazed companions, as he beetled off to pay the fee before tracking down the appropriate doctor.

9: Dinesh, who had yet to make a peep through the entire ordeal, sat in silence on his small corner piece of bed, the ‘yellow school bus’ green pleather sticking to his thighs in the humidity. He shared it with two people who looked, to me anyway, in dire need of medical attention. One, an elderly woman with a deathly cough, was rushed to a ventilator a split second after I was sure she’d taken her last breath. The other, a teenager completely limp in his sister's arms, responded to her taps and shakes with just an occasional lift of an eyelid. I prayed he had just been anesthetized. For the second time that evening I felt like lashing out, doing something, anything, to improve the situation for Dinesh and his bedmates, but once again deferred to the quiet locals around me. To avoid the curious gazes of the tragically ill, I busied myself with the details of the room. Dusty fans pushed around muggy air. Paint chipped away from graying walls. Duct tape and spider webs seemed so blatantly out of context. The ageing equipment, hand me downs from well-funded Western health care systems, prompted images of a time gone by, of nurses smoking in nursery wards and giggling at doctors' passes. I stood with my hand resting on Dinesh’s boney shoulder for forty-five minutes, staring blankly at the room, until Bishnu, showing signs of stress for the first time, came running back with a doctor. The doctor, his walk indifferent, his attitude arrogant, spent three seconds with Dinesh before sending us away. Another hospital. I wanted to scream at him. But back on the scooter, heading across town once more to the eye hospital, I contemplated his position. Given the resources, there were more people in the ward that day than he could ever treat, and I was sure this was not an atypical day. I had to excuse what I took as a dismissive attitude as an exhausted expression of helplessness. The eye hospital was dark. Not a single window alight, doors locked. Exasperated, we were about to leave, when the young parking attendant directed us to the 24-hour emergency room. Around back, through the alley, hang a left. Nothing like hard to find care when you have an emergency with your vision. Miraculously, we managed to feel our way through the dark to the right door. Locked. That was it. Out of options, we turned to go home, praying Dinesh’s eye would be okay until morning. On our way out of the parking lot we spotted a silhouetted man in what appeared to be a white coat. I suggested he may be a doctor, my first rational contribution to the evening. Sure enough, and somehow unsurprisingly, this man loitering in the parking lot was in fact an eye doctor. To us, the parking lot seemed just as capable an office as any hospital. Grabbing the parking attendant’s flashlight, the doctor examined Dinesh’s eye on the spot. As he did, our doctor explained that he had been waiting for the electrician after a power outage in the building. Again, unsurprising; brownouts here are a daily routine. The electrician arrived shortly thereafter and we all accompanied the doctor to his office. His equipment may have been taped together, but his care for the child was unquestionable. He was meticulous, friendly and professional; everything you might expect from an eye doctor, but not this day. We left confident that Dinesh would be fine. As if reasserting his composure, Dinesh fell fast asleep on the scooter ride back to the orphanage, wedged between Bishnu and me. I held on to him tightly so his limp body wouldn’t fall off the side as we bumped our way home, horns blaring around us. Unexpectedly, and delightfully so, the spicy aroma of a waiting meal greeted us as we pulled into the driveway. In Nepal, I decided, expectations can only mislead.

11: If they weren't in this orphanage, they'd be property of the street, wild as the stray dogs that comfort them.

13: My younger brother Gavin, living here in Hong Kong, compared it to home for me: "It's kind of like Chinatown in Toronto; just not quite as Chinese." While it may not be the intensive Chinese cultural experience of say, Beijing, Hong Kong has a unique appeal of its own – visiting HK is like peering into the not so distant future. Perhaps in response to the carbon haze that hangs over the city, at ground level, order and sterilization reign. The streets are clean, power-washed every night as we sleep. Stiff fines exist for littering, j-walking, and eating on the subway. Signs on doorknobs reassure me they are sterilized every two hours. But somehow it makes me uneasy, like I'm trapped in some Orwelian reality. Gates and fences line the sidewalks, guiding me in someone else's chosen direction, while voices from intercoms and public television screens remind me how to act. The steady din of the cross walk pulses in my ear, and I march in-line with the masses, crammed together like sheep. There is only one way to go, the same way as everyone else. While it doesn’t seem to bother the locals, as a visitor, I find the order disconcerting. I need to break free. So I do. In the subway, at rush hour, I step out from the marching horde and head my own way. No sooner have I broken rank than I find myself fighting a sea of oncoming people, like a salmon trying to swim upsteam. I feel like I’m going to drown here in the dry subway tunnel. Panicked, I struggle back to the comfort of my proper flow and breath a sigh of relief. I get it. In a city one-quarter the area of Manhattan with 7 million people, order is crucial. Without it there is chaos. And one person breaking rank could catalyze chaotic behaviour everywhere. So the city works, because everyone accepts order. And with order comes efficiency. The subway gets me anywhere, and it’s immaculate. Raised walkways keep pedestrians out of traffic, and traffic moving. Escalators save my legs from hilly terrain, indoors and out. The more I look at the gates, the fines, the order, the more this city seems to work. But the true beauty of this city is how easy it is to leave. Eighty percent of the island has been protected, left wild. A quick ride on the subway and I'm in the rainforest or on the beach. Of course, I have to share. But it's surprising how few people seem to leave the downtown core. Maybe the freedom of it all makes them uneasy.

15: While I crave exposure to a cultural history absent at home, the Chinese seem to prefer the modernity that reflects their recent success, opting instead for the glimmering cities of Shanghai or Hong Kong.

16: The smoke wafting through the waiting room burns my lungs. I hack, sounding briefly like I belong. The men puff away. Bodies and bags are strewn about. The lucky few have seats, but the rest of us just flop wherever there's floor space. The place feels lethargic and tired, but when the intercom crackles on, before a word is even spoken, the crowd springs to its feet and rush to the gate, luggage and children in tow. It's a false alarm. A collective groan translates the announcement for me; our train is delayed. The crowd flops again. Twenty minutes later the voice returns and this time it's for real. The entrance gate is a flurry of pink tickets. A class separation reveals itself - those with cheaper tickets, aptly named 'hard seats', break into a run, a mad dash for their oversold cars. Hard seat, it turns out, is a prize. Their small callused hands mightily push and drag boxes, baskets, and burlap sacks. Children follow close behind, recovering that which spills from the overflowing stacks – rolling oranges, a stray screwdriver, a waddling chicken. The 'sleeper' crowd, nicely dressed, meander to the back of train, lazily pulling wheeled suitcases. I'm among them, with a bed number stamped on my ticket. The 'hard sleeper' is much more comfortable than it sounds. Pushing my way through the narrow aisles, I find my row (gratefully numbered in English) and lift myself to the top of three narrow bunks, covered with a thin but tolerable foam mattress. While I can't sit up for the ceiling above me, I'm happy to have my own little world above the action below. Passengers settle in, gather on bottom bunks, text on their phones, light cigarettes, and pour hot water into bowls of instant noodles. Thank god for the train. If I had to do all this by bus, I don't think I'd be traveling China. I lie down and get comfortable for the sixteen hour journey from Shanghai to Yichang, not a long journey compared to many in this country. My bathroom excursion comes early; it’s almost impossible to do a free squat in a moving train, and this isn’t the most pleasant place in the world, but I've learned that over the course of sixteen hours, it's only going to get worse. Back in my bunk I read for a while, and before I know it, surprisingly early, the lights go out. There is no reading light. The loud chatter stops almost instantly and the Chinese take to their beds. Queue the snoring. A symphony of clogged nostrils courtesy of the thick Chinese air. I have no clue how it happened so quickly, I barely had a chance to pull up my covers. If it wasn't so irritating, it might be melodic. The old man across from me seems to be on a rotation; he goes from a complete cessation of breathing, to a desperate gasp for air, to a snore that rivals a jackhammer. But I'm no rookie anymore. I pull out my earplugs and eye shade and I'm off to sleep, the snoring just a soft drone in my ear. I sleep soundly. I used to wake up every two hours with a start, constantly worried that I had missed my stop, but the attendants have calmed me. They know I don’t have a clue what’s going on, and they never miss a call. Morning brings mayhem, as the lights come on and the evening scene resumes - phones, ciggies, and noodles. I join right in, slurping back addictive spicy instant noodles, chasing them with a can of delicious coconut juice. It's an exciting time, the daylight has brought fresh countryside and I hop down to the window to watch it slide by. Before I know it, we're chugging into Yichang, and my stint is done. I'm fed, had eight hours sleep, saved accommodation money, and I'm a thousand kilometres across China. Not bad at all - I'm feeling pretty relaxed. I wander out of the station, well prepared for the onslaught of "hellos!" from the hawkers, shoe shiners, taxis and rickshaws. Well prepared for another day traveling China.

18: As far as I can tell, there is no world beyond the gray that locks me inside the big red machine.

21: 8000 warriors, nevermind their horses and chariots. All of them life size. All of them different. For a country that defined mass production, the customization was staggering. Archers, swordsmen, generals, guards - all with different hair cuts, facial features, and proportions; each modeled after a real person. This is the tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shuhaung, famously known as the Terracotta Warriors. Legend says that each warrior was buried alive at the emperor's side to defend him from dangers in the next life. And that’s about it for an explanation. In classic Chinese fashion, there are endless details on the size of the pits, the number of figurines, and the weights of the precious metals within. But nothing resembling a story, a reason why, an inference into what the hell Qin could have been thinking when he ordered this monstrosity. Even without context, the numbers are staggering, the warriors just a taste. Most of the city of terracotta, yes city, remains buried. Everything our little emperor had in life, he demanded beside him in death. Servants, acrobats, animals, furniture, buildings - you name it, it's in there. An area of 60 square kilometers! 700,000 people we're assigned to its construction for their entire adult lives, answering to the whims of a thirteen year-old egomaniac of an emperor. The image of it all buried together is a creepy, ghostly thing, a terrestrial Atlantis. | The untold story is fascinating to ponder. Laborers plying clay day in, day out, slaving towards the realization of what? Did they revere Qin like a God, or curse him under their breath, keeping quiet out of fear of punishment? Did they lose themselves in the artistry of their work, or was each detail a painful reminder of the harsh class separation? How could one possibly work towards this achievement without at some point questioning its sanity? And what of the emperor himself, just a boy? Did he make this decision for himself? Could a teenage boy really choose to spend his life preparing for his death? Oh, how the Terracotta Warriors longed for a story!

23: What I notice most is the smell. It's a perpetual warning, the kind you notice when something's about to burn or breakdown. I find myself coughing, snorting and spitting like the locals, my eyes stinging and my head throbbing.

24: A sea of coloured caps mull around the parking lot, awaiting instruction. Yellow heads, red heads, pink heads, blue heads. Dr. Seuss would be proud. They are domestic tourists, in groups of fifty, distinguishing their clan through vibrant headwear. I’ve arrived at Zhangjiajie Scenic Zone in Hunan province, central China, a national park as jaw dropping as it is tongue tying. Here, hundreds of limestone karst peaks - narrow pillars of mossy, misty rock - reach for the sky like giant stalagmites. This is prime bus tour territory. Their beacon is a flag that matches the hats, carried by a guide who barks into a megaphone, forcefully enough to drown out the din of competing tour groups. They bustle along, leather jackets, high heels and cigarettes confining them to the flattest of stone paths. It’s an irritating scene for a serenity seeker, but I soon discover its magic. This cluster effect has left the park’s beautiful secondary trails deserted. I huff up and down old stone staircases, discovering long forgotten caves, exploring waterfalls in the distant corners of the park, and staring at endless pillars from towering peaks. The place is a natural playground. But duped by a combination of curiosity and propaganda, I join the hoards for the park’s most heralded attraction, “The #1 Natural Bridge in the World”. The bridge is predictably oversold. Not so much #1 as it is most accessible for bus tours. So it surprises me when behind the flashing cameras and posing subjects I find a sweet little taste of Chinese travel culture.

25: A padlock. Just a normal one, with a brass body and steel u-shaped shackle, like you might use on a gym locker or a shed door. It’s been hooked to the protective railing on the viewing platform, some hundred metres above the ground. So has another. And another. Now that my eyes have registered them, I can see nothing but. Thousands of padlocks fight for space on the railing, piled on top of each other in bunches like the leaves of overgrown ivy. There’s a Chinese inscription on the body of every single one. I stare at them intently; sadly I don’t suddenly gain the ability to read Mandarin characters. But thanks to a crudely translated sign, the tradition reveals itself. The natural bridge under my feet is believed to be "absorbing the nimbus of the earth and collecting the essence of the sun and moon." If I were back home I may write it off as hippy gibberish. But I’m in China, and mystical seems appropriate here. Clasping a lock in its vicinity is a literal expression of the "harmonious unity" of man and nature and believed to bring good fortune to he who clasps it. The inscription on the lock is a wish; a dedication of fortune to loved ones. The Chinglish examples of wishes range from "husband and wife treat each other with respect and be together forever" to "everything is smooth and lucky!" | The position on the railing is meaningful as well, speaking to different fortunes. Among others, there are zones for longevity and heart-linking, whatever that is. I buy a lock from an enterprising salesman, and have him engrave it, pointing to ‘smooth and lucky’ on the sign. Figure I can’t go wrong with that. I wander over to the ‘family delight’ section, push aside some locks (hopefully not affecting their fortune!) and snap it shut. You can thank me later family. For a brief moment I understood Chinese mass travel. Instead of escaping, these folks were bonding; using the natural world as a link to one another; seeing the value of collectivism and belonging. For a brief moment I got it. Then a megaphone screeched in my ear.

26: I've entered 'tulou' country. These massive circular rammed-earth buildings, some five or six hundred years old, were built by the Hakka people in South-Eastern China to house entire communities, while protecting themselves from wild animals and bandits. But they couldn't keep me out. Essentially ancient apartment buildings, the rooms surround a central courtyard, stacked four or five stories high. The lively scene - hens clucking, pigs snorting, men horking - makes the whole place feel medieval. Without electricity, the tulou wakes and sleeps with the sun, and as night falls, the din of the courtyard dies out and I can see the stars for the first time in China. The only sound is that of the giant wooden doors, their iron hinges creaking and then thudding shut for the night, locking marauders out and me in. It’s peaceful, and this time, I’m happy to be locked inside China. At least for a moment. But as the urge to pee builds like a rogue wave, an earlier exchange with a local in very broken English (like the kind of broken you’d just be better throwing out than trying to piece back together) starts to make sense. There is no bathroom in here. And all the tea in China, which I think I had drank with dinner, wasn’t going to budge that redwood of a door. Bursting out of my room, I frantically scan the open hallway; a stench hits my nostrils that I’ve never been so happy to devour. I find its source, a ceramic pot, big enough to sit in, filled, almost to the brim with the passed beer and tea of Westerners who had come before. Saved. As the sound of my splashing stream echoes throughout the tolou, I could only wonder who’s job it would be to empty this thing. And whether that person would also be tasked with getting it down from the fourth floor, spill free.

28: It would be easier to explore every corner of China than the entirety of its menu. I left an entire world of edibles undiscovered, either because I never found them, or just couldn't figure out how to order them. Crocodile, snake, monkey brain...take a walk down any of China's jaw dropping markets, full of frantic energy like a one day sale at Macy's, and you'll get a good sense of the immensity of the Chinese pallet - live animals galore, all hopping, slithering, flopping, and cawing before your eyes. The saying, "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse" should never be uttered at a Chinese market, unless you're prepared for someone to call your bluff. For a solo traveler, restaurants are a challenge. The Chinese don't do things alone, especially eat, so dishes are meant to be shared. Order a pork dish at a restaurant, and you get pork. A big heaping plate of it, enough to serve four, and nothing else. Trying to explain, through animated charades, that you are only one person and would like a variety of dishes in smaller portions, is, like Chinese food, fruitless. So for me, street food ruled. And that was okay; it was staggeringly cheap, surprisingly tasty, and authentic to the core. Pork-filled steamed buns, washed down with warm soy milk, is possibly the best cure for a chilly grey Beijing day. Deep fried sesame balls, filled with sticky rice paste are a glorious path to a skinny man belly. And for breakfast, crepes, coated with egg and stuffed with a unsweetened cruller, picked bamboo shoots, beans, and of course, chilies, could power hours of wandering. Along the way, glutinous rice in a million different forms, traveling barbeques of sweet potatoes and corn on the cob, eggs boiled in soy sauce with their shells cracked just enough to absorb the flavor. Just pull up a stool, smile, point and nod. For the times when the stomach felt secure as a bomb shelter, there was what I liked to call the 'manhood testers', eaten more for novelty than taste. I gave them my best shot. Chicken feet, jellyfish, pigeon, dried squid, fish eye, pig lung and penis, and of course, dog. Almost a tougher venture were the oddities. Lychee-flavoured chips, bean-flavoured juice, pea-flavoured ice cream. They may not have been particularly adventurous, but strange enough to make you hesitate. And unfortunately, they usually tasted as described. Dive into the ocean of Chinese food and you’re sure to pop up somewhere you never intended to go.

30: There are neighbourhoods that have survived, retaining their ancient charm without making a big deal out of it. Their narrow cobblestone streets buzz with activity, as pots steam, fish flop in buckets, and laundry drips dry from above.

32: I took off my jacket; the first time since I arrived in China two months ago, at the beginning of November, so it was notable. As the sun warmed my pasty arms, I gazed down the meandering course of the Yulong river, lined on both sides by hundreds of limestone peaks layered on top of one another, their features fading away into the misty horizon. Cormorant fishers floated gently down the river’s calm, clear waters on bamboo rafts, watching their birds dive and retrieve fish like a dog would a stick, obediently returning their catch to the waiting fisherman above. When the river’s calm had thoroughly rinsed the grey smog from my mind, I wandered back into the melee of Yangshou, a true backpackers’ town, filled to the brim with hawkers, Westerners, and banana pancakes. Still basking in the tranquility of the sun’s rays, I tuned out the world around me and like the river, wandered aimlessly. Through the cobblestone lanes I went – left turn, right turn – until I saw the sun smiling down at me; a sun with hearts for eyes and a beaming smile. Has China finally driven me crazy? Not yet – the sun was just a logo for a hostel, oddly named the Showbiz Inn. Hostel jumping can be a repetitive pastime, a constant babble of introductions. Conversations always start the same way - questions about travel plans and home countries, occasionally venturing as far as inane cultural observations of ones host country, the kind of drivel worthy only of a typo-laden, self-indulgent travel blog that only your parents read. | Once the basic niceties have been exhausted, the chatter invariably becomes forced and awkward; at which point there are three options: first, you can fight through the pain until the conversation comes to a natural conclusion, then avoid that person for the rest of your short stay; second, you can excuse yourself immediately, citing a desire to "go wander" (which is actually a completely acceptable excuse with this crowd), or third, you can go swill some beer together. Beer has the magical quality of launching new friends over the conversation speed bump and into 'accelerated relationship' zone. In a land of strangers, a dozen beers or so can land you a bestie. You’ll eat together, wander together, stay in the same room, wipe each other's....er, nevermind. The point is, in three days you will know this person better than you know yourself.

33: Now, if things go really well, you may reach the infamous one-week barrier. Like the Bermuda Triangle, this is where travel relationships go to die. Few have reached it, and even fewer have dared cross it. At this virtually impenetrable barricade you start to realize that you don't actually like this person very much, that their annoying habits are getting on your nerves, or that you've simply overindulged and need an extensive break...like, forever. This is when your travel plans suddenly diverge from theirs; you grab your bag and hop on the first bus, train or plane out of town. Usually they're all too happy to see you go. Both parties hit the reset button and prepare to do it all over again down the road. Travelers are saved by variety of people and place, but I can only imagine what it's like for the friendly staff, who make a real effort to get to know their patrons, without the benefit of beer, only to start over three days later with a new crop. It must be something like the movie Groundhog Day. Suicide rates are high in Yangshou. So all that being said, the best way that I can describe my time at the Showbiz Inn in Yangshou is that I had planned to stay three or four days, and after meeting a great group of people, I ended up staying eight. One week, plus one day. | The Showbiz was the epitome of hostel living; different sorts thrust together in a common home because we happened to turn left instead of right at the intersection. No reason that we should get on better with each other than anybody else. But it never seemed that way; it seemed as though there had been an intention to meet at the Showbiz. Our crowd explored our temporary home together. Bikes in the Chinese countryside, boat rides down lazy rivers, trips to markets that looked more like zoos, and of course our fair share of beer. We made a life for ourselves. On my final night, an Australian girl, new to the hostel, accused me of being 'cliquey'. I think I'm the only person traveling China by themselves for three months that has ever been called 'cliquey'. For that short time, it felt good to have a clique.

34: The relationships we formed were rare for people on the move, the solo travelers. This place bonded us. I wanted to park myself here, but I knew if I didn't go, they would.

37: From a distance, it looked like a simple Indonesian market. But as my brother and I approached, slogging up an endless hill in the countryside of Ubud, Bali, on squeaky rented bikes, the sound of crowing roosters filled our ears. Not one or two tardy messengers of dawn, but an entire cock-a-doodle chorus. This was no market. We’d stumbled on a cock fight. Giddy at the excitement of having finally escaped Bali’s tourist triangle, and desperate for a taste of true Indonesian culture, we dropped the bikes, checked our Western moralities, paid the 10,000 Rupiah admission (all of $1), and cautiously poked our heads in the large canvas tent. Welcome to man central. Hundreds of them congregated around a dirt ring - fathers and sons, brothers, cousins, friends; their anticipation as palpable as the humidity. This fight was clearly just a vehicle for gambling and general maleness; the roosters could have been playing poker for all these guys cared. Smoke wafted, jokes were cracked and backs were slapped, while the only women around navigated the crowd with trays of fried chicken (sourced elsewhere) and energy drink. The ring itself was a picture of professionalism. Neatly thatched walls separated the contenders from the observers; a half dozen uniformed officials watched on (so intently that I half expected them to start taking urine samples) as trainers warmed up their hopefuls. It was an eerily human process; roosters of every colour and spotted variation were marched around in circles, doing laps, their hind legs pulled and stretched, their beaks stroked and tested with practice pecks, as if warming up a rooster made the difference in its instinctive thrashing of another. A single common feature bound them all: they were big; a feathery collection of twitching muscles and bad attitudes. I wondered if roosters were capable of tearful admissions of steroid use. A synchronized wave of arms from the officials cleared the ring of all but two roosters, built more like pit bulls than chickens. A frenzy ensued, as men pointed and yelled, shook their money, and desperately tried to lock down a wager before the bell tolled. Inside the ring, two unfortunate birds were taken from their trainers, and a two-inch blade, polished and glistening, was bound to their lower leg with ominous crimson string. The din of betting and crowing ceased abruptly as the two birds rushed each other with territorial vigor. They met forcefully in the centre of the ring, a melee of feathers and dust. The crowd reacted to the oozing aftermath with testosterone-driven enthusiasm – loud cheers and playful shoves of their neighbour interspersed with pained cringes depending on whose bird had the upper hand. In thirty seconds it was all over. Both winged gladiators mortally wounded from the blades, the men reassuring us virgin Westerners that their spilt blood keeps evil spirits at bay. Money exchanged hands. Before we knew it, the second fight was set and men from every direction were tapping us on the shoulders looking for a bet, convinced that we now had our cock-fighting legs beneath us, and eager to include us in the gang. For us two brothers, laying down bets with eager Balinese men seemed the perfect way to bond with the locals, and each other, but this just wasn’t our game. As we left, and the hollering faded behind us, we promised ourselves it wouldn’t be long before we arranged a night of poker and beer back in Toronto.

39: Live present. A simple idea, so often pursued as a path to fulfillment - be mindful and appreciative of the present moment, the Buddha said. I knew the idea, but my trip to China was a chance to practice it with great awareness. To actively put the past to rest and leave the future unrevealed, while I took full advantage of the privilege of travel. It's not an easy task for me, to live in the present moment, while regret and uncertainty ping-pong in my head, but two months in China taught me one comforting thing. It's not an easy task for at least 1.3 billion other people. China, it seems, is the land the present forgot. China's past is unparalleled. 4000 years of omnipotent dynasties, disastrous wars, stirring artwork, illuminating philosophers, division and unification, hope and inspiration, great leaps forward and massive stumbles backward. Museums, archaeological sites, and palaces pay spectacular reverence to all that has come before. It’s an illustrious history that shaped the world. China’s future, equally staggering. Everywhere one looks, artists’ renditions and ramped propaganda unveil a China yet to come. Architecture that astounds, an economy in which all prosper, clean streets, clean energy, comfort and power. The frenetic pace of development seems ingrained in the Chinese psyche, an attitude of constant forward momentum. China is poised to lead the world again. For a visitor, China is defined by these periods of time, past and future. The traveler is taken by the hand and shown in great detail what China was, and with equal pride, what it stands to be. Look, but don’t touch. That’s not enough for me. I don’t want to imagine this place, I want to experience it. But to find out what it means to live in China today, in the present, and to be a temporary part of that culture, is arduous, and feels like an identity with which the Chinese themselves struggle. The present China seems just a conveyance from past to future. I feel like a child with his nose pressed against the glass of a toy store, staring in; I want nothing more than to be brought inside, to feel Chinese culture in my hands; I’m fascinated by what’s inside, but have little hope of being allowed through the doors. Oddly, as I'm staring in, I get the sense that the Chinese are staring right back at me, the same longing fascination on their faces. They want to understand this wandering foreigner, but can’t. We are too different. I'm suddenly impressed by Chinese immigrants to Canada that have managed to assimilate. The language contributes to our stalemate. I am constantly struggling to communicate; to find out what really drives people - what they think and how they feel about their lives. They do the same, their patience for the process far outlasting mine. Our exchanges are usually confined to the limits of our ability with charades. But the division goes deeper than language. This culture is independent, insular even, and it feels resistant to my influence, like I might get my grubby fingerprints on the nice new toys. What I'm directed to see often seems fabricated, just the partial construction of Chinese culture that they'd prefer to reveal to me. National parks surrounded by large gates that require finger prints to enter, ancient temples repainted with shiny new colours, operas, dances and Kung Fu without a Chinese person in sight. But after some searching, I find that the real present China lies beyond these purposeful displays. I may be just an observer, with little hope of finding myself more involved, but anyway, it’s a hell of a show. It’s the swagger of the police and the people's respect for authority, pitiful attempts to appear Western for my benefit, the boisterousness of Chinese meal, the incredible work ethic, hilarious matching hats of Chinese tour groups, endless superstitions and back alley markets.

40: While it might not be instantly obvious as you travel from construction zone to construction zone, over vast distances, through smog and stampeding herds of people, if you look closely you'll find that today's China is, if nothing else, interesting. But viewed in the context of time, together with its past and future, China becomes captivating. Thousands of years of customs and attitudes suddenly colliding with a reality the country has never seen before – a policy of opening its doors to the world. It’s no wonder there are inconsistencies, uncertainties, and trepidation. It’s a changing place, and change can be a tough adjustment. My time in China taught me that living present need not happen with blinders. While I laboriously sought present China, I was connected with its colourful past and budding future, reminding me that living present is only part of the equation. We are most fulfilled when we can appreciate the continuum of time in our lives. When we can smile at yesterday’s memories, live today with awareness and appreciation, and feel excited for the potential of tomorrow.

42: . | We woke before 5. At first the peaks were almost imperceptible, a series of silhouettes against the black. But night moved out with the slow acceptance of a fading tide, as light peeled the darkness from the sky. Every moment welcomed another ray, another feature – a new ridge, dimple, or jagged peak, glistening in the snow. With mindfulness, the sun journeyed upwards, casting a spotlight on the star of the show. The mountains shone. I’d found my present.

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  • By: Simon D.
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  • Title: Vivid Shades of Grey
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  • Published: over 7 years ago