The International Writers Magazine: Final Entry to Our Travel
Yangshou - Lost for (lack of) words
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.
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
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
I could hear the soft rumble of the market below. It was Chinese New
Years Eve and the usual chaos that is Yangshuos 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 Chinas 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 wasnt going to pay
any old Tom, Dick or Harry just so hed 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 didnt have to, but
it was pay or stay. They neednt explain themselves to us, we cant
understand. Its 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
arent 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 wasnt 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 familys
Ox, we discussed my behaviour. Ah, that distant mystical land, where
youre 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.
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 didnt have to isolate me and trusting
others didnt need to be such a chore. At that moment I felt
invincible, Id 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.
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 dont 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 didnt have a care in the
© Lydia Smith April 2004
wins a copy of Colin Todhunters book Chasing
all rights reserved