28th, November, 2010. Friendly picked us up at 10:30 with his wife and son. I had a royal head ache and the runs courtesy of being up all night steadily drinking on my own. We were heading for shuo jio, a big town about two hours away. The landscape changed as we drove higher up into the mountain, ears popping and the sky slightly bluer, we stopped in a motorway car park which had a large tall modern gate like sculpture on a raised platform. “This is the old boarder from thousands of years ago from the north of China to beyond” Sarah informed me as we stretched our legs, the wind strong and bitterly cold.
We continued along the motor way and through a long tunnel going through a mountain, on the other side it was like another country. Like a barren flat Plato, the main colour being brown, the twig like trees looked brittle and thirsty; I imagined it being a harsh unforgiving environment to live on. Brick factories and large chimneys belching out white and black smoke broke the flat landscape. “ Shuo jio is as beautiful as eastern Europe” a big green roadside sign claimed. Indeed the landscape was beautiful in a rugged harsh way. The road slowly dipped down and ahead a town was visible. A settlement as if miraculously sprung up from the earth. Although I have never been it made me think of Vages, an unusual place for human beings to live in the middle of know where.
Shuo jio is in the beginning stages of development, buildings only reaching up to a few stories, the odd tall building like a giant in the short ones midst’s, the roads are cleanish and new, the cars are expensive, jeeps and four wheel drives and on the pavement there are a lack of crowds. Compared to Xin zhuo with its constantly honking horns and bustling main streets it was strangely empty. Things half built, half done. New shops next to patches of dusty earth, pristine roads cut off suddenly leading into the dry wild yonder.
The whole drive Steven was pushing my buttons, shouting for attention, tickling me when I slept and generally being a petulant child. He snatched my camera while I was filming out the window and I let him play with it until he kept on trying to touch the lens to my express dislike. I took it back and he got in a huff and tried to set his Mum against me “you can play with my camera” She said from the front seat. He reached into her bag and began to molest with his greasy fingers her expensive wafer thin camera, rubbing the lens so that the image was smudged and unfocused.
We arrived at a wide hotel with red neon characters on the roof. We met the manager at the door, a tall man wearing a smart suit, a friend of Friendlys. He showed us to the second floor of the restaurant. I had heard from many people that Shuo jio was a very rich area, I was a little disappointed in the hotel, “ it’s the best hotel in Shuo jio” Friendly had boasted to me, but then again I have heard the words best and number one thrown around so much they have lost their credibility.
There was a wedding going on in one of the big rooms, A red garish wreath encompassed the main door to the room, masses of tables and people eating where visible. A red table with 4 people sat outside the door, they where there to collect the guests money and write down in the red book how much each person gave. There where plates of sweets and cigarettes on the table. It was all very messy now as it was the end of the wedding and the table was stroon with odd sweets, ash and broken cigarettes, a bit of a war zone.
It was late in the afternoon and apart from the wedding there was only two other tables with people in the main eating area. We had individual hot pots with gel flammable things underneath. We served our selfs from a seafood buffet. The buffet was expansive with great variety, small crabs, big crabs, prawns, small lobster like things, pork, beef, lamb, guts, tofu. Many different vegetables. Dumplings, buns, barbecued lamb and beef, cakes and cookie and fruit. I am sure I missed a lot out.
We all took our individual plates and stocked up. I went for the large crabs first, they where deep fried. Far too salty and the meat was dry and stringy. The meat was subpar and the vegetables where standard. I filled up with dumplings and buns and became super full in a moment. The administrator and I drank bie jiu. Friendly really wanted to join in but he had to drive. “ I will just have a glass” He said reaching for the bottle, “ No I don’t want you to drink at all” His wife snapped harshly as she intercepted his hand “ Not worry, don’t worry” He said, as if he was doing something very safe. The rest of the table joined in in berating, telling him not to drink and he gave in reluctantly. After the bottle of Bie jiu was through and the administrator and I were red faced and what I would call, nicely sozzled, we had a few beers as well with the head chief who came to join us. “This is my good friend, we come from the same place in Guang dong” Friendly told me as he introduced me to his chief friend.
This man had the most incredible ears, sumptuously lobed and with a dink in the middle, Very much like a Chinese Buddha picture. “You and Tim both have small ears” Ariel pointed out laughing to me and Sarah. I do indeed have small ears, I don’t really mind but for some reason it hit a nerve at this moment in time.
The dining room was long with wooden furniture and calligraphy paintings all around, large tall windows looked out onto the roof of the hotel which was a building site; it looked as if they were building another few stories on top of the existing hotel. Steven was misbehaving, screaming and shouting and turning the TV up very loud, falling on the floor in tantrums and whacking his parents. Ariel lost her rag when he started to climbing over the railing in the hall way which fell down to the lobby. She screamed and threw her Mobil phone on the floor. This got everyone’s attention and a few nerves laughs bubbled. Strange how children can get so little attention but an adult does.
He continued to act up “do you hit your child?” The administrator asked Ariel and Friendly matter of factly. “No we haven’t yet but I am really thinking about it” Ariel replied grimly. This got Stevens attention and he looked a bit worried.
My eyes began to feel heavy from the food and drink and I wondered when we were going to leave, I felt like a sleep. I probably felt very much the same as Steven did, Bored, frustrated and desperately wanting to go. Watching Sarah and the adults talking in mandarin, not bothering to try and understand I sat waiting for everyone to say “let’s go”.
In the end this happened and we went down to the basement and the administrator showed me the massive pick up and two land rover defenders which were owned by the hotel owner. “He also had a few other cars as well” He said proudly. I slept all the way home, opening my eyes periodically seeing the mountains, a shadow to the setting sun, the road a constant roaring noise, the tires conflicting with the tarmac road. Racing alone a new motor way.
“We are going to Ding shang village to eat” Friendly announced as we passed the turn off to Xin zhuo. I looked at Sarah and she had the same look of bemusement as I did at this statment. I was well up for bed up it wasn’t going to happen.
We sped past Xin zhuo and arrived in Ding shang village “I have a friend who works in the best hotel in Ding shang” Friendly told us. Steven was asleep next to me, silent and restful. Ding shang village in the night life was like a mad max scene, old ramshackle looking vehicles chugging along, bouncing down dark dusty roads. The last moving thing on a dead waterless planet.
After many road side stops, shouting down a phone for directions we found the hotel and pulled up outside. The whole lobby visible through the giant window pane looking in “ what would happen if I threw a rock at the window?” I thought. The hotel was smaller than most I have been in but it was very smart, a winding stair care led up to the second floor, a massive case leading up with the stair case housed expensive looking bottles of bie jiu, a long clean fish tank with colourful life flitting around in it stood near the shiny lift. The floor was shiny, made of marble, the ceiling glinting with a sharp chandelier. Friendly’s student, the head chief of the hotel came prancing down the winding stair case to greet us, hand extended.
We went up in the lift to the 3rd floor, walked along a beautiful waitressed hall way and into a privet room. A chandelier made out of paper and string glowed on the ceiling. Steven was fully awake now and knocked over a pot of boiling water on the table. Friendly exploded in rage shouting at his son. The dishes came quickly, A flat fish in vinegar, fried eggs in stones, shredded donkeys meat, cold shredded potatoes, thick noodles with aborigine, Pickled vegetables.
There were probably a few more dishes as well. Friendly yet again was spurned from drinking due to his driving obligations. I drank 20 year old bie jiu with the head chief, the manager and the assistant manager who all came to pay their respects to Friendly. I was infact drinking for friendly. Sarah and Arial drank date juice, a warm brown liquid which smelt like hot sick. I angled my schnozzle to partake of the odor and vacuumed up a lung full of the stuff. Rancid bile. I am surprised people drink the stuff, but then again I have heard such things said about bie jiu as well.
We stayed and ate a free meal at the expense of Friendly’s student, then left. The hangover from the afternoon pushed back like a small wave, pushed with more alcohol from dinner. I was drunk again and full. The road was also jam packed with large Lorries, coal totting trucks, clogging the road, bringing up storms of dust. We inched along like insects on a dinosaur march. These crude metal movers spluttering and vibrating around us. A sheet of silver metal which had laid on the road relieved from a lorries wheel shot like a sting ray into the sky, zooming over our car spluttering dust and gravel on the wind shield. We all gave a shriek of excitement felling tiny amongst this big vehicle hike. A time long and boring ran its course and elapsed and we finally began moving steadily and managed to get onto a clear road and back home. We got back and I fell asleep quickly and gratefully. I felt like the object which a syringe had just plunged sucked and ejected from.