Guilin and my Last Days in Beijing

1983

Click on the pictures to enlarge the landscapes

Guilin, its hairy Karst teeth from the air.

 I flew from Kunming back to Guilin to make good on my promise to explore this beautiful land and its people. Unexpectedly I ran into Zhu Qingshi at Kunming airport. Zhu was flying to a classified conference in Guilin and promised that he would take some time off to show me his Guilin.

Waiting for our flight we were accosted by a Chinese man from San Francisco, asking for help with five little packages slung over his shoulder. I took one look at him, there was no doubt, he was gay.... Poor Qingshi, who knocked himself out to persuade the China Airline staff to let the packages pass at no extra charge, and then, shaking his head, commented on the man's strange behavior. I laughed, "He is from the same tribe as your MIT professor." "But he is Chinese!?" said Zhu. "...from San Francisco!" I laughed some more.... A hushed discussion on gays ensued between us. The good fairy was over-grateful, and I promised Zhu that I would take care of him in Guilin.

My promise with a few consequences. When we arrived in Guilin, my charge had no idea where to find a place to stay. I took him in tow. We walked, he pulling a wheeled suitcase which continuously rolled over. We passed a Chinese hotel and my fairy insisted he couldn't go on. I let him do the talking to the hotel personnel, normally I would not have been allowed to stay there. We were finally given a room together! Two beds all-right and no harm came to me, but I had to watch a fashion show of all the jewelry he had bought and carried in those little parcels.... Eventually, my new friend read me Chinese poetry in translation as we went to sleep.... Next morning I refused his invitation to go on a river cruise with him. He left by himself.

Zhu called to invite me to a river tour with a group of physicists from the conference, some of which I knew from Guangzhou: My second trip down the river, made interesting by a lengthy disputation with the very sharp female department head from Fudan University in Shanghai on the psychological nature of scientific inquiry, my favorite subject since my last visit to Russia (1977). While my Russian friends nodded knowingly to my thesis that intuition and a quest for beauty were the major forces in all new physics research, my skeptical Chinese lady only shook her head in disbelief. If that were true then one could obtain more than one answer to a physics problem. "Yes, I said, "that's exactly the point." Zhu, who was listening in, tried to mend the broken bridges, he was trying to analyze spectroscopic data using "fuzzy mathematics." "You may have a point there," he said, offering to send me his latest paper...  

 Meanwhile the hills, each with a name and a poem by a famous poet attached, floated past under a Chinese-gray sky. Conscientiously Zhu named each one to me. 

 This is shan shan— "shan" hill, because it resembles the three-pronged character shan for mountain.

 

A village by the river. Some poet had lived there in the Tang, was it Bai or Fu? I don't remember. 

 

A few days later Zhu returned to my hotel. We rented bicycles, and he took me to the places he loved, where he begged me to allow him to sit in a bamboo grove for a while and meditate on the view. I walked around and found a bush with a few blossoms on it and a broken bridge to frame Zhu's pagoda hill.

Zhu's View and...

... my view of the same pagoda on its hill.... I showed Zhu my discovery, and he said, "You Europeans must always have some strong color in your pictures...." We rode back to town through green vegetable fields.

Grandma telling her grandsons old stories. The man in the background was spreading "organic fertilizer" from the septic pool of the village. 

Next day a wild storm passed, it rained incessantly for 12 hours, but the following day promised some sunshine. I rented a bike and took off into the hinterland, through small villages and woods, was thrown out of a PLA commune, discovered a path between the nearest hills and....

 ... a group of lime kilns and....

 

 ...watched the farmers trying desperately to gather their wet rice crop from fields re-flooded by the rain.

 

 Eventually the river blocked my way. I didn't have any map and did not want to get lost. So, I retreated along the path I had come.  

 I reached town at sunset, a fantastic, totally un-Chinese sunset.... which I wallowed in with secret delight.

 

 

Last Days in Beijing, November 1983

I was booked on a Japan Airlines flight from Beijing to Los Angeles on 4 November. I also had left a heavy suitcase with my little professor, and I had a few other unfinished things to do in Beijing, like visiting "Aunt Mary" (the aunt of a Chinese-American friend), and exploring the city for a few days in my way, without guides.

From the moment I arrived at Beijing airport — which is very far out of town — unforeseen things began to happen. My professor had promised to meet me at the airport and get me a room at Beijing University. He was not in sight, and it was 9:00 PM and dark. Well, I thought, we have gone through that before and took the airport bus into town. At the bus depot I decided to follow my nose, I would oblige the first hotel to give me a room. It was ten by then. Cleaning women threw me out of the first establishment. In front of the next stood tour buses, but the telephone clerk told me that it was reserved for Overseas Chinese. I stood my place and was handed along to a young woman who spoke English. She had no rooms. I argued that I had seen that there were empty rooms. "You cannot stay here, you are not Chinese." I pulled my eye lids sideways. "No," she insisted, "you don't have a Chinese nose." I laughed and said to myself in German, she is right, God Father and Freud in Heaven just made a corny joke: A German with a Jewish nose! "Wait," said the good lady, "can you help me write a letter to a couple who did not pay when they stayed here?" We spent half an hour correcting her draft. When we were finished, I stuck my hand out: 40 Yuan (the price of a room) or a room for the night. "Are you German?" retorted she, "you spoke German before" and in passable German asked to be taught German.... I gave up and shook my head, and she called her group leader. "My cadre says that you can stay in the dormitory." she said. I protested one more time that I was a professor who deserved a proper room, but then took my bag and moved in with a crowd of Hong Kong drifters.... The dormitory attendant very politely showed me their first-class showers. It helped. I had an overheated night. It was the first of November, when they turned on the heat for the first time....

Next morning I demanded my passport and moved out, I would find a hotel room myself. There wasn't one in three places. It went to the CITS, where I found hundreds young travelers waiting in line for a room. This is when I made the CITS lady call my little professor, he was irate because he had bicycled to the airport and not found me. Yes, he had a room for me at the University. I went by bus to Beijing University, remembering my days with Xiuming. With the help of an American student and the university housing office I located a really wonderful room with bath reserved for visiting professors... An hour later my professor dragged in the heavy suitcase — on his bicycle....

Because I had no telephone number for Aunt Mary I sent her a postcard, hoping that it would reach her after I had flown off to Japan. I had not reckoned with the Beijing postal service, three hours later she called and asked to meet me after lunch on the following day in the lobby of the biggest hotel in town....

I walked the town in the morning and discovered among other things the backside of the Forbidden City. The house, which duck in the protection of its wall, used to be occupied by the minor service personnel of the court, the imperial horse grooms and sweepers, I guess.  

 Street sweepers, there are still whole armies of them in Beijing. They kick up the dust the November winds have blown into the city. My laryngitis returned with a vengeance.  

 And truck loads of bok choi — cabbage had arrived.

The lotus in Bei Hai — the North Sea was wilting. — Winter was coming.

Aunt Mary appeared in the only private Jaguar in town. Her husband, a specialist in glass manufacturing from Corning-Illinois, had returned to his homeland and was now leading a government department which produced Coca Cola bottles by the millions.... She took me to a Swiss Café where she fostered two pieces of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte and two cups of strong Swiss coffee on me. I left with my heart in turmoil....

On the flight from Guilin I had sat next to a young woman physicist, Chinese, originally from Canada. Like Aunt Mary's husband she and her husband were also repatriates. She eagerly listened to my adventures in Dunhuang and Sichuan. One evening she called and invited me to their apartment near the university. A big Chinese dinner awaited me — and then the doorbell rang and in walked the Woman from the Dunes.... The greatest surprise of my entire stay in China. Zhou Hong — Zhou Rainbow finally revealed herself to be an actress on the legitimate stage and in films. "Our actors have to use hair pieces on their chests, when they play Western men. You are lucky to have such a magnificent beard." She confided. Ever since, I scan the credits of every Chinese film, but have not encountered her again. But a haphazard correspondence with her ensued, which lasted for a couple of years. She sent me scores of pictures of herself in various roles and poses.... I was obliged to tell the story of my travels, which were translated with gusto and humor by my physicist friend's father. My fable turned more and more into a "Chinese Fairytale," too many of my adventures sounded too improbable. — This was how the Return of the Monkey King was first conceived and told, and these pictures prove that I did not entirely make up its tales....

 My last adventure: My taxi stuck in the castor beans. You see Beijing airport dimly in the distance. This is how close we were...

My little professor had promised to take me to the airport in the institute's car. I waited in front of my building, he didn't appear. When I got cold feet, I rather brutally requisitioned a taxi from another traveler. I had just told the surprised driver where I wanted to go, when my professor appeared on his bicycle. I dragged him into the taxi. Off we went — but the confused driver had no idea how to get on to the access road to the airport. He tried to cut across on a dirt road, and we found ourselves facing an irrigation canal bordering a field of castor beans (see the picture). On the rough road the car's shift linkage had fallen apart. The driver was lying under the car, when I took the picture. Time was running short, and my professor was shell-shocked. I helped the driver to patch the linkage, and he started to race back. We had to repair the links twice more before we reached the airport — 20 minutes before departure. The driver read the price off his meter. I knew that the amount was one-month's salary of my little professor, so, I paid without blinking. The airline and the custom officers were exceptionally helpful. Five minutes before the plane took off, I actually was in my seat....

I flew to Tokyo-Narita, where, I knew, I would have to wait 15 hours for my Los Angeles connection. Japan Airlines put me into a immaculate hotel with doll's furniture. I spent the afternoon at Narita Shan, an old Buddhist shrine in the middle of town. You can see the pictures of that afternoon here without any words — speech had left me...  

 

 

 

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