Day 5, Yuanyang to Xinjie (30km):
One-third up our 30km climb we stop in a tiny town with a single main street one block long. We peer into a tiny store in the front room of a house, and a shirtless old man gets up from the battered sofa where he'd been watching TV and helps me rummage through the cooler for soda, a Coke clone called Future Cola (motto: "Future is better"). There's a basin of square-cut goat cheese fermenting in the corner, and a few older women pass wearing what I think are Hani traditional clothes. We sit in tired silence, and he putters around, finding a pack of cigarettes which he breaks open and pulls two from to offer Tak, who declines with a smile. Offers again, declines. Satisfied, the man takes out a plastic box of finely cut tobacco and fills the bowl of his long bamboo water pipe. In the eighties and nineties, and earlier, wasn't it common for Chinese men, even non-smokers, to carry packs of better-quality cigarettes to offer folks, especially superiors, to facilitate the guanxi that smooths business negotiations and cements friendships? It was a sweet gesture, and reminded me of my godfather, who will sometimes set a bowl of plums on the table between us and remind me of the commandment not to eat fruit in the presence of others without sharing as he cuts one in half and passes it to me without my asking. It's not precisely true; the injunction, in Deuteronomy, is to leave the corners of your fields unharvested for gleaning. There's a whole Agnes Varda film about this, The Gleaners and I, and my mother often left the corners of our own fields unharvested where they adjoined public roads. On the way out of town we passed a dragonfruit growers' cooperative and people setting out the morning's harvest on tarps by the roadside, and they didn't offer us any, nor eat in front of us themselves, but they did call out hello in that mellifluously inflected voice--short, low 'he,' lilting, high 'low!'--that sounds like someone coming home after a long journey and unlocking the door of their house with a key that's grown unfamiliar in their hand, calling out to someone they've missed, who's been waiting for them, with the warmth of anticipation honeying the syllables of their words.
The night before last we'd wandered around a street fair in Tonghai. We passed stalls selling ordinary things: flip-flops, cheap kitchen gadgets. But also weight loss machines you stand on while your body fat is jiggled away, a whole stall of people standing on them, keys clipped to belt loops jangling rhythmically. A stall selling traditional medicine, the darker brown forms of turtles and snakes soaking in oil or a brownish liqueur, displayed in an enormous case while in easy chairs and on low stools elderly people sat with their feet soaking in plastic tubs of literal snake oil. At a photo studio parents posed their babies on stuffed tigers, or on a swing between two living peacocks. A shirtless guy in a vest hawked Mongolian kebabs; descendants of the Mongol army, called the Khatso, settled here more than eight hundred years ago and have still maintained a distinct culture and ethnic identity. (In 1982 they sent a delegation to Mongolia and brought back wrestling, which is one of the only things the internet tells me about the Mongols of Yunnan.) I stopped to take a snapshot of a carnival ride when I noticed a standard-issue carnival shooting gallery beside it: faux machine guns mounted on their tripods, aimed at cartoonishly big-eared Obamas whose thumb pressed down on the tiny body of Xi Jinping, the president of the PRC. The man behind the counter caught me taking pictures and walked away.
In the town of Yuanyang after--I'm not exaggerating--an hour-long descent from the cool mountain peaks to the sticky hot summer of a river valley town in the shadow of a dam. On our way into town we passed a protest encampment, banners of dead fish lining the roadside and eight military-style canvas wall tents in a neat row blocking the entrance to the city office buildings while protestors cooked over a small fire nearby. But before that, after the hairpin switchbacks that I took so many breaks on, after the cicadas so loud that at first I imagined workman cutting sheet metal up in a tree, we stopped in a grimy little town for lunch of mixian. It was in the only restaurant in town, and ten people were sitting around a large low table grilling goat cheese and slowly getting plastered for the afternoon. Everyone laughed at us good-naturedly, smoked their cigarettes held to little slots in the long bamboo water pipes everyone smokes, an old woman wearing Yi traditional clothes came in and ordered a small bowl of noodles, and we polished off our lunch along with gifts of spicy cabbage kraut and honeyed rice pudding from our breakfast host in the town of Dog Street. When we set off, it was down a gentle slope lined on both sides by bamboo groves. The road went on like this for a few kilometers, then we came to a makeshift wall blocking off where the road had collapsed and slid down the mountainside. We could get by easily, and so could motorbikes, but there weren't any larger vehicles on the road for our entire descent down curve after curve with the rice terraces striating the hillsides a rich, verdant green nearly luminous through the haze of distance. It went on like this for miles, each vista more astonishing than the last. (...) Then we arrived in Yuanyang, drank a watermelon juice and a Coca Cola, found a generic business hotel for $10/60¥ overseen by three teenage punks--one wearing a shirt reading LUCIFER 666--who waved away our passports, though every other hotel has been meticulous about documenting our trajectory through the country. There's no light in the bathroom and you can shower and use the squat toilet at the same time, but otherwise it's clean and neat. There's racist, no-longer-aired-in-America Tom & Jerry cartoons on TV and the home shopping channel is advertising fat-burning machines you stand on and are jiggled into thinness.
Long slow climb past tobacco fields, with corn growing in small (personal?) plots, chili peppers interspersed between the rows. The road's smooth, the sky ever so slightly overcast, and I'm feeling much stronger than yesterday or the day before. We're nearer the famous rice terraces, but the landscape is hillier and leads agricultural, though several times we've passed leathery-faced people selling mushrooms from small baskets on the roadsides, sometimes covered with fern fronds to keep the sun and road dust off. We stopped in a little town, maybe Dog Street, and wandered into a snack shop. The woman sitting out front leapt up and set out two chairs for us, then dished out little bowls of--I don't know what. There was a hot, savory rice porridge, a sweet cold porridge with herbs, and a clear sweet jello she poured a tea-like herbal syrup over, then added a small spoonful of strong fermented rice to. When we sat down with our favorite, the cold porridge, she sliced us off some tapioca strands from an enormous quivering block (?) and poured them over ice to make what must be faluda. While we ate, two little girls wandered over silently grinning, and one carefully applied the pollen of a buttercup to each toe on her sandaled foot. I heard her explaining to the kids that we didn't understand Chinese (which, but for that small and useful phrase, is totally true). We asked how much and she waved us away insistently, so I tried to give her half a kilo of small peaches we'd bought yesterday from an old toothless woman who'd waved us down along the roadside, but she was like, whatever I have my own peach trees up the hill! So instead we took pictures, and she showed us blurry photos on her phone of her young daughter and her son in his military uniform. I'm stopped in the shade for a moment, writing this now because in the evenings I barely have the energy for a stray thought, 5km more to go before we stop for late lunch and a 40km downhill.