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Siberian Paridise

We stop in the middle of an open parking lot and my eyes snap open. The red digital numbers in the front of the bus read 2:00. People are filing off the bus, holding their shoes in red plastic bags, putting them on in the spongy red matting at the bottom of the stairs. We cross the parking lot to a ferry terminal, waiting in clouds of cigarette smoke. I buy another water bottle to add to my collection of half-drunk ones in the metal basket at the foot of my sleeping mat. There are no bathrooms on the bus, so even though I haven’t finished any of them, and I have gotten off the bus in almost all of the many Guangdong stops, my bladder still aches with paranoia. The ferry has a bathroom though. It also has a bootleg version of Ice Age, dubbed in Mandarin, and rats that shoot out of the walls like darts in an ancient, booby-trapped temple. Steve and I sit with our legs crossed on the metal benches and listen to my iPod until the battery runs out.

When we get on the bus, I close my eyes, and I don’t open them again until he shakes me. It’s 7:30am, and we’re in Sanya, a tourist city on the Southern end of Hainan, China’s only tropical island.

We eat, first, at the “McDonalds” of China. China does have a McDonalds, yes, but we use this in reference to the Uighyr noodle shops that all reside under the same blue banner with cut out photos of a mosque, a bowl of noodles, and a cow.

The cab driver has a picture of Chairman Mao hanging from his rear view mirror, and when we show him the address of our hostel, he takes us someplace entirely different. “Bu shi, bu shi,” we say—this isn’t it—and he yells at us in Chinese that YES YES IT IS. He drives around to the other side of the street and stops again, pointing at an unmarked house and continuing to yell. We get out without paying, our hostel still nowhere in sight, and walk halfway down the street, finding it at last. We go back and pay him, and we can hear him screaming at us as we walk away, flailing his arm at an abandoned building, telling us we should go inside—that this is the place we’re looking for. We stopped looking back at him, and as we entered the courtyard of the Sanya Lama hostel, the front lawn dotted with tents for the construction workers, his voice dies away.

We could fall asleep there, but choose instead to go out to the beach, where I finish reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones, sitting on a green towel with a cartoon puppy that I’d bought the previous morning from the grocery store, and he sleeps, insistently sunscreen-free, on his stomach.

There’s not a lot to do in Hainan, which is a major part of the attraction.

You could select live fish from the rows of bubbling, cascading tanks. Sometimes the shrimp would even jump out at you, as if to volunteer themselves. We didn’t take them up on their offer—we stuck to spicy cucumber salad and fried noodles as wandering Chinese minstrels played warbled, dragging their guitar amps behind them.

You could drink cocktails on the boardwalk at a place called “CCCP”, Soviet propaganda posters stapled to each wooden column to attract swarms of be-Speedoed Russians. Steve didn’t drink, having fled to the seashore with me to rest and heal a little bit from an obnoxious and recurring illness, but he demanded that I did whatever I expressed the desire to do.

“You should buy one of those,” he said, as I eyed a rack of beaded purses.

“I’d break it,” I said, imagining myself snagging it on a hook, the handle snapping and the beads scattering across the gritty floor.

“That’s a pretty negative thought pattern,” he said, from his mountain-top, lotus position.

I argued with him, but after he’d gone back to the hostel, I bought a blue and yellow one with stretchy brown handles. It zips up, and rests safely tucked under my elbow and over my hip. It can also, of course, fit a decently-sized book—Oscar and Lucinda has been traveling safely inside of it for most of the week.

The third day, I brought the first printed draft of a book I’ve been working on to the beach, and as he went off hunting for return tickets (for the train this time, to avoid rats), I sat at CCCP with my red pen, a melonball and a smile. They first sent the Russian waitress to me, but I asked for the Chinese girl, and we had some of the shy and faltering, albeit smiling back-and-forth that I am growing to love. I sat there for hours with my red pen, looking out at the clean water, over the tops of thatched umbrellas, past the naked Chinese children burying themselves in the sand, to the clean, blue water, the jet skis maneuvering around fishing boats.

The Filipino band at the Rainbow Grill (that boasted real cheeseburgers with BACON) didn’t end up being a real band, but rather a guy who played electric guitar over karaoke tracks, and two women who sang soft rock and soft salsa. Steve had commanded that I stay out and have fun, even though he wilted into bed early. So I sat, talking to Victoria, a waitress from Henan province who moved to Sanya specifically to practice English. Henan is the home of the Shaolin Temple, and when I asked her if she knew Kung Fu, she said, “Of course!” and did a couple of kicks to demonstrate. When I got tired of watching the men with Mohawks dance and sharks who came to holiday from monopolize the pool table, I walked back over the bridge and crashed headlong into bed, sleeping off what felt like a wild five months of shock and newness.

In the hostel, we met a worker at the hostel from Anhui province named Neo. I didn’t ask, but I’m about 82% sure that he named himself after the Keanu character. He was bigger than most Chinese people I’m used to, and a lot more outgoing, making jokes about how, the further South from Beijing, the better China becomes—hence he was here, at probably the most Southern point possible. The first question he asked me is what the difference was between a “chance” and an “opportunity.”

The second question was, “Is that man your boyfriend?” He said this sotto voce, when Steve was in the other room.

“No,” I said.

“Oh,” and as if he couldn’t take back the sentence he’d already planned, or perhaps in conspiracy of future conversations, “he is very handsome.”

While we were lying on the beach, done with our books on the morning of departure, Neo came and sat with us, pulling off his shirt. I got up to take a picture of he and Steve together, and he yelled, “No! I am too fat!” All I had to do was to nod my head toward the Russians behind him for his worries to be slightly allayed. He spent most of the conversation trying to convince Steve that he should marry a Chinese girl. When Steve asked why he should, Neo shrugged and said that this was just what Westerners did when they came to China. He left after about an hour, because he had to go “check his stocks.”

The next chance meeting came in a grocery store parking lot, where a woman, Coldstone’s style, mashed mango and banana together into an icy paste. As we sat savoring the fruit and the hour to spare before taking the bus to the train station, a big white man with a do-rag hovered over our table and rattled off something in Russian. We motioned for him to sit down. “OK-le,” he said. His name was Dennis, and he was on a two week holiday from being a firefighter in Siberia. Steve also insisted (always insisting) that I let him buy me a beer. He knew where Santa Barbara was, because apparently in Siberia the soap opera is still extremely popular.

We took a sleeper car, stacked three bunks high, and traded playing card games with watching the sun set over the South China Sea. This was the train that gets loaded onto a ferry, snapping apart and then back together like a toy set). I let slip some Chinese as we all crowded around the window and was almost immediately surrounded by Hunanese home-goers who stretched my vocabulary to its limits, miming, pointing and writing the words that I didn’t know. As we got off of the train in the morning, a quiet old woman followed me, wishing me a happy new year, shyly seeing me off. A man named Geng still calls me, late at night, and when I say that I don’t know what to talk about, that my Chinese is not good enough for the phone, he giggles.

We arrived back in Zhuhai, Stephen with better health, and me with a renewed interest in studying Chinese. There will be more traveling to do next week, but in the meantime I have more exams to grade, and some hostel reservations to make in Thailand.

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