Monday, April 25, 2005

Twiddling My Thumbs

Well, it turned out another day of rest was coming my way whether I wanted it or not. When three people who only know each other by first name and what kind of local beer they prefer, all coming from different directions and heading out the same way, try to go trekking together the plans often hit a snag. It's too meaningless to write about, but we would leave the next day. In the meantime, I had one more day to wander about Li Jiang among the yellow hats. Let me explain.

In Li Jiang, as in most of China, tourists are mainly Chinese themselves. They are starting to discover their own country, visiting places they had only heard about and were off limits to previous generations in previous times, mainly because of finances. But that is changing as China is growing, and the Chinese are now whipping about the country in a frenzy of yellow hats. You see, the Chinese generally don't travel independently; they much prefer to travel in arranged tours, identified by two things: their like-colored hats, usually yellow, red or white, and the collective movement of all the like-colored hats following a young girl waving a usually yellow flag who would rather be home watching a bootlegged DVD of the latest Julia Roberts movie.

On some kind of itinerary, which in Li Jiang means backtracking all over the same cobblestone alleys and bridges so that the people think they've walked about ten kilometers instead of two, the 'hats' move together down the alleys, causing anyone trying to walk against their direction to momentarily step aside into a store selling wooden flutes shaped like huge bulbs of garlic. When one yellow hat stops to see what kind of dried yak meat is offered at the dried yak meat store, identified by the sign 'Dried Meat Yak', all the other yellow hats decide that they must see also. So a rule goes into effect that if you have a sudden craving for dried yak meat or even dried meat yak and are wearing a yellow hat, then this is the store you go to. If you are wearing a red or white hat, then you are obviously in the wrong store, will not be served and must try the dried yak meat store on some other street. However, you will undoubtedly get lost and come back to the same store, thinking that this must be the place that serves dried yak meat to the red or white hats and be shamed once again, to the amusement of the yellow hats who are busy eating curried yak and complaining that their feet hurt from walking so far.

Fortunately, I was spared another day from the hats by the two lovely Chinese ladies who just so happened to wander in the hostel courtyard where I was eating breakfast. As they got to practice their already substantial English, I practiced keeping my mouth closed, blinking, and speaking the same English they were speaking to me instead of the grunts and moans that seemed quite more natural at the time, lest they think that an epidemic is sweeping America that is reverting all the men back to Neanderthalism. Marilyn and Cindy had already been in Li Jiang for a few days and knew their way around the maze-like town. As we walked around, arms in arms, passing drooling foreign men and scowling Chinese girls, my new friends took me to a cafe at the top of the hill in the center of town, which quite profoundly displayed a sign out front welcoming people from all countries of the world except the Japanese. A little perturbed, I nonetheless led the two flowers to the top of the hill where we spent the rest of the afternoon, the girls talking about their lives in Chengdu and me entertaining thoughts of moving to China. They had a plane to catch home that night, so we said our goodbyes and I prepared, once again, to go to the Tiger Leaping Gorge the next day.

But my head and ears still hurt.


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