Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Horse Trek from Hell - Part 4

After two hours of flailing and failing and falling, I was just about ready to give up. Like, really give up. I mean, stop and just refuse to go on. I would fall once more, but not rise again. The mud would envelop me and silently I would disappear. A hundred years in the future a yak will accidentally uncover my jaw bone, and it will be added to the pile of anonymous remains the locals collect. As I was pondering and creating this future, I kept walking, and in a few more minutes we reached a summit.

Couldn’t believe our eyes.
A highway.
A goddamned highway.

Why the bloody hell did we slug ourselves all this way up and down mountains and ravines, get covered in shit and freeze our asses off when we could have taken a ten minute taxi? Ten minutes. In comfort. The air must have scrambled our brains long before we started the trek. Speaking of which, I was shaking and feeling weak by this stage. The pressure on my eardrums meant I could hear my own blood pumping, and I was breathing far too loudly for someone still standing upright. (At least I was upright most of the time.)

So anyways, despite believing for the last two hours of trekking that we were in the middle of nowhere, a quick, mini-descent saw us on tarmac once more. So much for ‘getting away from it all’. I realise now, that when in China, you can never get away from China. Now that we were on flat ground in an area that no longer threatens us with all manner of deaths, we are (surprise surprise) allowed to remount our horses. Now we ride for about half an hour along the road, occasionally passing construction workers, often passing yaks, frequently passing nothing at all.

Rounding a bend, we are presented with an expanse of concrete with white painted rectangles on it, in front of some small wooden structures and a block of toilets. In my oxygen-deprived confusion it took a few minutes to realise that one of the buildings was a ticket office/lunch room and the gaping flat patterned area was in fact a completely empty carpark. Now we had to buy tickets from the little crumbling old shack/hut/thing, what the tickets were for, we had no idea. Then we finally figured out that we would actually be staying in one of these small wooden almost-rooms for the night.

This part is good – I’m going to tell you about the room I stayed in. To start with, I can almost guarantee it was the size of your bathroom. It had the following cozy features; bales of hay in one corner, a lightbulb that didn’t work hanging from a bare wire, a door that didn’t close properly and a single, filthy memory-of-a-mattress that was obviously made when Confucious was still rambling the countryside. The sun was setting when were introduced to this new humble abode and I, for one, was glad to not be able to see the finer details of the space. With a big imagination being almost painfully stretched, this could possibly be considered a little bit quaint? Yeah, maybe when it was first built! About a millennium ago! The floorboards were thick and uneven with dark maroon rusty old nails, the window was done in classic countryside style, it smelt like a farm, and the small size of the space promised the potential of some warmth containment.

On the wall facing the bed, positioned as if it were the highlight of the space (to be admired and appreciated from anywhere in the room) was a large laminated poster which could not have possibly been more misplaced. It depicted two white-to-the-point-of-Aryan toddlers on a big cream couch with a fluffy puppy. It had been taken in the 90’s with that customary (read: vomit-worthy) pastel palette and photoshopped faded edges for dream-like effect. You know the look I mean. Like those photos of babies in pumpkins that parents pull out to horrify their children 21 years later. Yeah. Those ones.

I digress.

Swallowing the figurative spew in my mouth (actually, I really was also so sick I felt like throwing up) I was distracted by our guide bounding gleefully towards us with something shiny in his mud-crusted clutches. Like an excited golem with a fragile ‘precious’, he squeezed into the space and fumbled with the light fixture (or lack thereof). I was admiring the intent plastered on his face and staring directly at his hands before I realised what he was doing and when the new lightbulb burst into light, my brains exploded out my eyeballs in pain and I groaned, gasping for air and groping around blindly for something to steady myself. When I could finally see my eyelids and conceptualise what was beyond them, I opened them and immediately wished I hadn’t.

Dust particles mingled through the air undoubtedly at a higher concentration to oxygen. Spider webs held the vertical wooden planks together with more integrity than the screws, and the mattress was so stained that I could not distinguish its original colour from the magnificent spectrum of nondescript browns. Perhaps this was not real. Perhaps I had in fact passed out on my horse an hour earlier because of the altitude sickness, fallen down the mountain and bonked my head on a boulder, and this is a special kind of hell reserved for arrogant losers who think they can handle ‘real China’. Yeah. That is a much more likely scenario, because I wouldn’t sleep here if it was the only bomb shelter in 1945 Hiroshima.

The temperature was steadily dropping, and I could distinguish hunger pangs amongst the other painful abdominal-area feelings I was experiencing, and so we were ushered a few meters from our new nest into a very dark, but pleasantly warm room. Again, with the primary sense of sight removed, my nose became keen and sneezed itself in indignation against the sudden assault of woody smoke. I was instantly transported back home to the moments of crouching in front of a burgeoning fire mid winter. Opening the thick glass door to the fireplace, hurriedly casting a pinecone to the flames, just to hear it crackle. Shutting and fastening the door again, I would lean back onto the soft carpet and stuff my face with almost-melted chocolate, licking my fingertips just in time for my puppydog to come lay against my side. Closing my eyes to the sound of the wondrously repetitive television show, I would slowly drift off to sleep – keenly aware that when I woke up everything would be exactly the same. I lived in a small world full of love that I loved living in every day.

My eyes adjusted in time to realise that I had left that lovely world for one where it was filthy and cold and so foreign and so feral that animal legs and dried sausages hung from the wall, and overflowing ashtrays spilled onto about-to-be-used chopsticks and more brown splotchy things kept trying to be pillows. Unmarked bottles of cloudy liquid balanced on shelves and a freaky dog shaped clock sat on top of a rusting (yes, rusting) television set – neither of which appeared to work.

The next interesting thing to keep me from passing out was the re-appearance of our guide, and his miraculous metamorphosis into a chef. Our afternoon meal consisted of cucumbers and then some cucumbers, and to spice things up – a few more cucumbers. These cucumbers were chopped with an old knife pulled from a box on the ground, dumped into a pot on top of the fire, and flavoured with salt, chilli, Sichuan pepper and some more cucumbers. A big scoop of cold water from a bucket next to our feet was added to the pot, and as the sizzling noise burst into the room, I felt my stomach knot itself into knowing position of not-too-positive anticipation.

I sat down for a few minutes to try and catch my breath. This attempt failed. In this room, smoke was apparently the new valuable commodity chosen to replace oxygen levels in the air. It had been decided that warmth was of prime concern, and a feeding wood to a fire that consumed oxygen was more important than my ability (read: inability) to do so. We waited in silence for the cucumbers to cook.

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