Edward Norton is my international stalker.
He has replaced Ice-T, who has stalked me for years, despite the fact that I am not black and not from the ‘hoodâ€”as his detective character chastized a not-getting-it honky on one episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
In 2002, as I was shopping for a vintage (AKA cheap and used) dress on the Lower East Side to wear to my year-and-half-late wedding reception, there Ice-T was waiting for me, his ruse a visit to a leather shop on Orchard Street. A week later in Brooklyn, as I headed down to Fort Greene Park, he stepped out of the driver’s seat of a gleamingly expensive car and strode up the stairs of a brownstone. He didn’t make eye contact, but I was onto him. It took him a year to track me down again, this time at a random corner in midtown Manhattan. He just avoided running me over as he squealed an SUV through a louie before the light turned red. I was relieved, because thwarted love can turn hostile.
I figured that once I was on the other side of the globe, I wouldn’t have to worry about such attention. In China, I have about as much sex appeal as a book on Victorian landscaping.
And then Edward Norton was suddenly, literally, on my trail.
Let me set the scene. I was in northwest Yunnan province, just beginning the 50-kilometer hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge. It had taken 11 hours of bus ridesâ€”stomach-twisting turns, secondhand cigarette smoke, wide-eyed gapes at the lone laowai (foreigner)â€”to reach the trailhead. The Yangzte Riverâ€”here in gentler form as the Jinsha tributaryâ€”was a soft teal sprawl, like melted green tea ice cream.
Almost immediately, I screwed up, following one, then another, and then, goddamnit, a third misleading trail. The touts murmured at me from atop their mules. Annoyed, I ignored them. I had come 9,000 miles from home to check out the view, and I still couldn’t get five freaking minutes alone?
Yet it was the touts who saved me, pointing out the correct trail, which is called the “high road.” Ashamed, I thanked them.
After going up and up the mountainside, if all went well, by late the next day I would have worked my way back down to the narrow gorge. There I’d find the Tiger Leaping Stone the eponymous feline is supposed to have jumped from across the gorge to elude his hunter.
My stomach roiled from the bus-induced motion sickness. The altitude took my breath almost immediately but returned it just as fast. Once, to save time, I cut across a wheat-colored expanse of prickly brush. My knees bushwhacked the thorns. When I returned to the path, my first sight was a used hypodermic needle.
I’ll take the thorns, thanks.
Soon the ground became too steep for such off-trail adventuring, sloping with alarming sharpness down to the river and up to the snowy crags.
After a few hours, I caught up to the Edinburgh University students I had shared a minivan with from the Mama Naxi Guesthouse in Lijiang. On winter break from their Eastern Studies program at a university in northern China, they were four boys whose names started with J and a fifth who claimed another letter, as well as Kay, the lone girl in the group. She was clearly the “adult”â€”the one who made sure others had their stuff, watched their step, kept their heads.
The boys were a gaggle of puppy energy and good-natured self-satisfaction with their own cleverness. Three years into school, they were experiencing what, if you’re lucky, can be the most abiding lesson of collegeâ€”the fun that can be had with your own brain. They reminded me of the exceptionally intelligent boys I went to school with, who notched their belts with philosophy courses, sexual ecscapades, slave-wage jobs, and psychedelic drugs. (Okay, I did too. But anyway.)
Like the boys I had known, these Mandarin-speaking kids from the British Isles had an opinion on everything. Nothing could be processed without being assessed: yay or nay, and then a full debate. Their opinions were not so much reflections of personal taste or experience but assertions of identityâ€”flags planted in the ground that claimed territory and allegiance.
Many of those opinions were on American TV, which is apparently broadcast everywhere. Lost, CSI, Desperate Housewives, Prison Break, 24, and of course Law & Orderâ€”over and over, Chinese and foreign fans alike got perky about their favorite show.
I haven’t seen most of these shows myself. People have been a bit disappointed in me, as if when it comes to crosscultural bonding, I’ve failed to hold up my end of the bargain.
Where they’re getting these shows is hard to say. The Europeans watched them back home. In China, people are probably downloading, as Leo in Xi’an told me he does to get Lost, or buying DVDs. This is China, so there’s a good chance they’re bootleg.
If hotel-room satellite TV can be trusted, the shows aren’t broadcast in China. TV here seems to offer mostly shot-on-video costume dramas, some set in Japan; musical extravaganzas in which peacocks, Lycra, and/or cowboy hats figure prominently; or talk shows that might be about finding love and/or a really good washing machine.
When I’ve needed to understand more, and sometimes less, I turn on the English-language channel, which is dominated by cultural coverage and world news. Both subjects have been rendered anemic. In February, two news stories were in constant rotation. One was the 2008 budget proposal from George Bush to Congress. The budget was repeatedly described as including $141.7 billion for “his war in Iraq” and “less money for the poor.”
I’m convinced the Bush Administration is one of the most destructive US entities the world has ever seen, and even I found this a tad reductive.
The other big story was President Hu Jintao’s tour of eight African countries, a brokering of trade agreements and political handjobs. Each African country swore its support for the “One-China Principle”â€”no independence for Taiwan. I can’t say I know much about the situation between the Mainland and Taiwan, but I do know that if you need Namibia to do your smack-talking for you, perhaps you’re feeling a bit insecure.
All of this TV talk was not what I had in mind for the hike. I had hoped for some one-on-one time with the mountains and not much else – not even a comb.
Conversation mostly ended at The Bends. This is the toughest part of the hike, a series of nefariously twisting ascents. The number of actual elbows in the path is ambiguousâ€”on the handdrawn maps you find in backpacker hostels, it’s variously totalled as 24, 25, 26, or 28. Most people are probably too busy wanting to die from exhaustion to make an accurate count. Or perhaps the number refers to the amount of hours it seems to take to finish. I was weighed down by two shoulder bags, which swung in front of me with the momentum like enormous pendulous breasts. I also didn’t have a walking stick, which would have been a third “leg” to put weight into. Adirondacks hikes have taught me how much energy they save you.
There were frequent pauses to catch our breath. There was always a good excuse for it, tooâ€”the view.
Eventually we made it to a guesthouse, where we ate and drank hot things under a Milky Way backbend. The students chatted in Mandarin with Chinese hikers from Shanghai. There weren’t many Chinese trekkers; most domestic tourists take tour buses along the low road, an asphault band thousands of feet down that is prone to becoming the finish line for landslides. However, those who do hike the high road have better equipment than any of the foreigners. Their well-made tents, ergonomic thermoses, and gleaming aluminum walking sticks reminded me of the gear I’ve seen Germans hauling on Adirondack trails in that cheerfully brisk Teutonic way.
The chat struck me for two reasons. The first was that the more Chinese tourists forgo the package tours and do their own thing, the better chances there are for environmental care in China. At least, this is what the foreign travelers tell each other in backpacker venues.
The second was a bit more perplexing. Here’s the strange thing about many of the expats I met in China: most don’t like China very much. Yet they stay. They complain about the dirt, the noise, the food, the manners, the spitting, the toilets – but they extend their teaching gigs and cram Mandarin lessons into their schedules. They are both compelled and appalled by China. And they stay.
Trapped by monolingualism, I wrapped myself in a blanket and went to gawk at the stars. (I recorded some thoughts, but the file isn’t uploading properly. I’m trying…)
Kay and I shared a room that night. It was a concrete square with two clean beds and no heat. The view from the window was casually astonishing. The boys had electric blankets to cut the cold, but we had no such luck. Someone brought us extra blankets. Kay filled up a plastic bottle with boiling water she got from the guesthouse kitchen and slipped it into my bed. I came back from the miserable squat toilet to find a delicious pool of warmth under the covers.
I slept so hard I turned soft. I awoke as muscle jelly, reduced human, blissful blob. But once I was out of bed, the cold made me solid again. My fingers and toes were like dead sticks as I hunched over a bowl of oatmeal with bananas while the dozen or so hikers at the guesthouse readied themselves to leave.
I wanted them all ahead. I would wait until the sun had risen; they would be long gone by then. Because the gorge is so deep, the sun doesn’t appear over the eastern peaks until 10 amâ€”three hours after it first breaks on the hidden horizon beyond.
Once the sun came out, so did the laundry.
I packed my bags and left. I walked through a village of 10 houses, passing three old women hauling a live pig into a barn. Its frightened, knowing squealsâ€”oh god, they’re going to kill me, oh god oh god oh godâ€”ended in a sudden, ambiguous silence as I passed the last house.
There, I found a loose pile of tree branches, like oversize pick-up-sticks. I pulled a five-foot-long, slightly bowed limb from the pile. I put the blade of my swiss army knife against it, then stripped away a foot-long section of crackling bark and small knots to find sweet-smelling pine the color of honey. I closed my palm around it. And so I had the walking stick I had yearned for at The Bends the day before.
This minor act of transmutation was deeply pleasing somehow. As my side of the earth wheeled towards the sun, the handle got slicker in my palm. I walked faster.
The trail wasn’t built for visiting hikers. Actually, it’s a path that links several small Naxi villages, a few hours’ hike between each. After an hour or so a Naxi woman and three kids under 11 appeared behind me. I was in a photo frenzy, snapping gluttonously at the remarkable viewâ€”
â€”so they eventually caught up. When I said “Ni hao” to the three-year-old, he ran ahead shrieking in delighted terror. He ran so far I started to feel real fearâ€”what if he fell? I looked back at the woman and pointed beyond me, where the path seemed to curve off the edge of the earth. She smiled in acknowledgement, but didn’t call the boy back. He bumbled those still-awkward feet along the path’s edge, where unreliable roots cling in devastating angles.
If, as it has done at so many rivers before, China builds a dam to tap into the massive hydropower potential of Tiger Leaping Gorge, the footloose kid, his family, and their neighbors – about 80,000 people, mostly Naxi – will have to be relocated.
I’ve read that because the government will pay people relocation fees based on the size and quality of their property, people are busily developing their lots. I don’t know if that’s true, but I did notice a tremendous amount of construction. Logs, wood chips, and sawdust were sometimes foot hazards on the path. Felled trees were being turned into enormous A-frames in every village.
It’s also possible they are building guesthouses to cash in on the constant march of hikers, who are a captive market if there ever were one. In such an isolated place, the guesthouses offer more than food and shelter (though that’s clearly the foundation: I can imagine being so desperate in that harsh mountain environment that sleeping with four bored villagers in return for a horse-blanket bed and a meal of fried kittens would seem like a great deal). They also serve up re-contact with humanity, which, I was learning, becomes increasingly appealing the longer you walk with the knowledge that a minor slip can mean you’re dead. And not only will you be dead, but your death will have happened in a beautiful void. No one will have seen it. Your remains will probably never be found. You’ll probably just disappear.
That’s why the terrace at Halfway Guesthouse was so appealing – people and snacks, plus the view.
And guess what I found at Halfway Guesthouse? The Scenic Toilet View advertised on the trail. Here is what you see when you assume the proper position:
Tiger Leaping Gorge is not an untouched paradise. It has the beauty – sometimes a thing of such immensity that it seemed to buffet me from all sides. It was a wind knocking me around, a nonstop white stream in my chest, a laugh on my lips purpled with too-much.
Sometimes I just had to sit down.
But it is not untouched. The last dozen or so kilometers of the trail are chaperoned by electrical poles festooned with wires and fat water pipes like enormous sea slugs.
The people who live in the mountain villages want electric lights, reliable water, and satellite TV.
You may want to get lost, but they want to get Lost.
I kept imagining the guys who erected the poles, ran the wires, and laid the pipes. How on earth did the construction materials get up there? There are no roads. How on earth did did the guys stand, let alone drill or wire? The angles are so sharp, the heights so deadly. China isn’t exactly known for OSHA-approved industrial safety standards. Had anyone died?
The last of the high road trail passed a black patch of slash-and-burn farming on its way to the low road. It was another 45 minutes to what the trekkers call Walnut Garden. The village was situated in an area more like a walnut shell, or like cupped hands offering green to the verdigris mountains across the gorge.
I chose the last guesthouse in Walnut Garden, passing by Sean’s and Tibet House. A room at Woody’s with two twin beds, a private bathroom, and a hot shower cost 40 quai, or about $5.
But it was the terrace at Woody’s that really kept me there. It hung over the green cornfields cut in steppes down to the lip of the gorge.
It was at Woody’s that I finally realized what was so different about the mountains of Tiger Leaping Gorge. It’s that you look them directly in the face at every moment. Generally, if you’re this close to a mountain, you’re standing at the base of it, watching it slope upward, seemingly away from you. But here, you’re looking at it directly.
You find yourself respecting the mountain.
The stars began to stain the sky bleach-white on black. There was too much laughter from Brit expats and too much lascivious sneering from the Naxi teenagers. I wasn’t interested in others’ good times, or others at all, really.
I wandered off the terrace to the street. Up and down were village homes and guesthouses, yellow lights and it’s-getting-late murmurs from moms. There were no cars, so I sat in the road. The dog from Woody’s, a smelly, bad-eyed mutt who had befriended me despite my lack of Chinese cute talk, settled against my knee. He scanned the darkness around. I scanned it upward.
Dpwn the street was Sean’s. And that’s where Ed Norton was staying.
He had arrived a few short hours after I did. It’s amazing he hadn’t caught me on the trail, considering how I had dawdled to take pictures and notes, or how I had wept near a waterfall for a good half hour about how grateful I was to be weeping next to said waterfall, and who exactly I was grateful to. (Everyone I had ever met, pretty much, but mostly my husband and my parents.)
If Ed Norton had left Sean’s, he would have found me sitting in a dark patch on the street with a dirty but companionable dog. And I would have said, Ed, I traveled 9,000 miles from home to get some solo face time with the mountains and stars. So do you mind shoving off? Coming all this way shows real American stick-to-it-iveness, and you probably have rock-hard abs. But I really hated Fight Club. I thought it had a rotten, disingenuous soul. But more importantly, I’m just not that into humans right now. I’m happiest with the darkness and stars.
And Ed, despairing but respectful, would have gone back to Sean’s to have a Dali beer and make small talk with the other guests, who would have no idea that he was thinking about how glorious it would be to disappear into the vastness of the universe, so tolerant in its utter indifference.
If he knew who I was, of course.
The next day I would make it down to the Tiger Leaping Stone. I had exhausted my camera battery the day before, so I couldn’t take photos. It took me another five hours of hiking to get down to gushing rapids of green tea ice cream.
But this posting has been way too long and overdue. You’re just going to have to make it to Tiger Leaping Gorge yourself to find out what lies at the end of the 50-kilometer haul.