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The International Writers Magazine
: Final Entry to Our Travel Writing Competion

Yangshou - Lost for (lack of) words
Lydia Smith

Scrambling up a series of slimy sculpted stairs closely resembling those that Frodo challenged on his life-changing journey, I suddenly felt allied with the fictional character. It was a miserable cloud-capped day where the lack of open bright sky forced me to focus below its grey ceiling on the imminent world around me.

With sheer drops to one side and damp bug-covered rock to the other, not only was I starting to feel like the unstoppable hobbit but I was also starting to resemble him. The damp was playing havoc with my previously tamed mass of hair and the sheer drops were promoting a similar look of fear and caution on my cantankerous face.

I sympathised with his feelings of exhaustion and deluded questionings as to whether this adventure was fruitless and ultimately personally damaging. Although the overall outcome is supposedly hailed by all, it would seem getting there was proving, to be literally, somewhat of an uphill struggle.

Once I reached the top of the Guangxi limestone pinnacle it was as though time froze. It was like a high-tech scene from Matrix, possibly induced by lack of fitness, where I was the centre of everything and the world around me began to spin. There was pinnacle after pinnacle and nothing else to see. Uniformly sporting a murky grey camouflage, they looked like a crowd of muted shawl-caped widows standing tall in a mystical mist.

My dizzying frenzy halted when my spinning idealism arrived at an up-close graffitied TV tower. Unperturbed by such reality, I removed my sweaty coat, sat myself down on the concrete mass and surveyed the unyielding view.

I could hear the soft rumble of the market below. It was Chinese New Year’s Eve and the usual chaos that is Yangshuo’s main square had been entirely undermined by a descending mass of mothers, motorbikes and mayhem. I slipped away into the enchanting festive sound.
Locals were buying terrified chickens to tie bottom-up to their bike handles for the ride home. The floor was covered in a wet sludge of pak choi and the usual body fluids. Roads were filled with pushbikes, walkers, pedi-cabs, and trucks. Streets were paved with families sucking down noodles. This kind of cooperative chaos defines China for me. That unspoken rule to never stop and always consider what your contender may do. However, pondering this sense of community, I felt the numbness of isolation that many non-mothertongue speakers endure.

My most fatal moment of incapable interaction had occurred only two days previously. My boyfriend and I were on an arduous trek through one of China’s deepest gorges – school holidays and an opportunity for me to recover from general poor health! Several exhausting hours of stumbling, numerous dead-end routes and a packet of crisps later we arrived at a small man.
My boyfriend arrived several minutes before my faltering self. "He wants 5 Kwai," he informed me.
"No way." I adamantly replied; I wasn’t going to pay any old Tom, Dick or Harry just so he’d move aside. We tried to saunter past him but he squared up to us as I threw him a look of disgust.

I was weary of people using the language barrier as a vantage point for their wallets. We had already paid an unnecessary park fee – just to pass through on the bus. We knew we didn’t have to, but it was pay or stay. They needn’t explain themselves to us, we can’t understand. It’s our destiny to undertake this semantically deaf and perceived ‘dumb’ role.

We stood in front of him discussing what we should do. The sum was pittance but this was a matter of principle, a case of right versus wrong. "Bollocks to this" I cried and flung myself along the path closely pursued by boyfriend and new acquaintance.

The guy ran past to be rediscovered 15 minutes later sitting behind a locked gate. The details of the following ‘conversation’ aren’t eloquent or interesting, as content would have little impact. However, it freely employed the internationally received ‘fuck’. I also took advantage of hand gestures and kicked his gate – I was a martyr for all toll-abused travellers everywhere. Of course his smug grin wasn’t intimidated and the gate was only opened when the 5 Kwai was paid in full.

We continued accompanied by my wittering about the Chinese and their obsession for money and their lack of respect for my paying of taxes to their government and educating of their young. I was cut short when we arrived at an English sign:
"Local people built this path with no help from the government. Please contribute 5 Yuan for the upkeep of the path."
My martyrdom drifted away. I was an embarrassment to westerners and myself. I looked at my boyfriend who leered back. Why not just put a sign at the other end of the path? Of course I would have parted with my 32p peacefully.

That night, lying in a wood slatted room above a Naxi family’s Ox, we discussed my behaviour. Ah, that distant mystical land, where you’re supposed to find yourself and take on a whole new role of independence – somewhat like Frodo. Yet, the non-language speaker finds herself thrown into the pockets of others and all she can do is trust their judgment and botch-job translations or result to swearing.

Cooperative communication like that in the market was the way forward, common language or not. In the market if one person stops their system is destroyed. This is what had happened to me, through relying on others my system was jumbled; it had been eating away at me.

Leaning on that TV tower I suddenly felt removed from this world where I had gone astray. This was my opportunity to leave it or return anew. Not speaking Chinese didn’t have to isolate me and trusting others didn’t need to be such a chore. At that moment I felt invincible, I’d seen the light. I hoped that on returning to my new home the last downhill experience I would endure would be the scrambling descent of the pinnacle.

My thoughts were interrupted, my friends called; photo opportunity. I took one last look at the surrounding view. Across the valleys came the uniform snapping of celebratory firecrackers (an image later marred when they were thrown at me by hysterical local kids). Above these, but just as rhythmically, came the shrieks of a pig. Its day of New Year glory had arrived as it tried to protest; its meaning understood but its words not heard. I contemplated the pig and its feeling of difference in a world dominated by others.
I quickly put on my coat; it was time to return to my holiday. As I bounded round the corner I did my best to straighten my frizzy mop, after all you don’t want anyone to think that this life-changing stuff is anything like hard work. With the camera balancing on a rock we stood together and smiled, like we didn’t have a care in the world.

© Lydia Smith April 2004

Lydia wins a copy of Colin Todhunters book Chasing Rainbows


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