This weekend she invited me to accompany her students on their annual trip to the country for two days. The sting was to be Y250, covering transport, accommodation and a couple of meals. These kids are in their late teens, with girls outnumbering boys by a fair margin, and with academic scores or other reasons that have kept them from a university (though some plan to go on to that). I hadn't seen LL in the mistress mode before: she suddenly looked ten years older, with her hair severely drawn back in small plats, but it was obvious that she commanded the respect of these teenagers with a common sense tolerance that had common sense limits. They told me reverently that the school administration had forbidden their trip (liability risk), but that she was taking them anyway.
After kicking the door unlocker out of bed, I huffed up to the front gate at the ungodly hour of 6.20am toting a bag of clothes and dry food. It was still half dark, and even Luoyu Road itself was almost deserted. My appointed escort arrived five minutes late in a taxi from HanKou, which must have cost her a packet. She was a diminutive Chinese girl in a dark trouser suit, and wearing sensible shoes. Her pale face was a little too square for conventional beauty, but her black eyes shone with intelligence, and we made an almost instant bond. ZL is eighteen, with many of the interests you would expect of a young woman, but also a natural tendency to reflect on the wider meaning of events, and is easy in the company of an older man. She seems to think much of her father, a businessman, which probably explains a good deal.
We caught a rattletrap bus up to the back gate of HBFTS, then walked around a block of shanties to the front, ZL pausing to buy a half a dozen small, steaming baotze for breakfast from a street vendor. The main road past HBFTS is wide, dusty and altogether unlovely, which pretty much describes the school too. The teenagers were kicking around the front gate in the way that teenagers do, the boys larking about a bit, but most of them too shy to say hello to me.
When the tour bus arrived, a little late like everything else, I didn't recognize it. It looked exactly like one of the tin can Wuhan metropolitan fleet. Inside there were a few scraps of curtain, seats that had apparently once been capable of tilting back, and a fan for the driver. I thought of the sleek buses with carpets and television sets that purr along the roads, even of third world countries like Indonesia and Thailand, or for that matter, Afghanistan.
Five hours in a bus is a fair stretch. Luckily some instinct for hospitality reserved me a seat by the front door, where I could drop my legs into the step well. ZL settled down for some serious interrogation, under the cover of practising English. It began with the usual classroom formulae: "what city do you like most" etc., but soon began to range into a more freewheeling exchange. Not many Chinese have the English, or more critically, the mental insouciance, to engage in unscripted speculation, so ZL was a refreshing exception.
We passed through the urban wastelands of outer Wuhan, where new housing projects offer cheap apartments to the less well-heeled, crossed a lake to low-lying fields of vegetables, a grubby town or two on a railway artery, and began to climb up valleys into the foothills of some mountains. The settlements diminished, hillsides were covered in secondary scrub and light timber. The bus climbed the narrowing road, then slid into steep descents. Presently we stopped by a stream on the edge of a precipice. The wheels were pouring with smoke, and the driver fished a bucket from under my seat and spent ten minutes heaving buckets of mountain water onto the now steaming brake drums. I wondered to myself if wet brake pads were a better investment than pads soft with the heat of friction. The mountain road was deserted, which was lucky, for there were no luxuries like safety railings between the vehicle and precipices of a hundred metres or more, and I couldn't see how two vehicles could squeeze past each other if they met.
Our destination was a kind of resort settlement of shabby apartment blocks posing as hotels, and a small village of three or four restaurants, a couple of open fronted tourist shops with the same kitsch as in Wuhan, and some others with bags of dried fungus and other exotic "medicines" spilling onto the pavement. Of holiday makers there was scarcely a soul. Maybe it was late in the season. Certainly at this altitude the air was already chilling us to the marrow. If this was Hubei's answer to a Swiss resort, or even Malaysia's Cameron Highlands, or Vietnam's Dalat, then they had a few things to learn.
It was only one in the afternoon. We left our bags in the chosen apartments. This was a block that had once been painted white, set back at the edge of a valley behind some waste blocks of long grass and broken concrete. I never did see anything that looked like a reception desk. We found our way into a dark, narrow entrance under some stairs. By now it was pouring rain. The rooms were arranged in sets of four dormitories, each set with about four beds, and sharing a sort of common room and squat toilet-cum-shower with the other dormitories. Not a single door in the place would stay closed, let alone lock. They didn't quite know what to do with me. There was one single room, almost a cupboard with a bed in it, that happened to be in a "girl's" dormitory, so in the end I was parked there.
Apparently lunch wasn't in the budget. I had bought some sweet rolls (all you can get), but presently ZL came to invite me over on behalf of the students in her block. It was the strangest meal I have ever shared. The small room was packed with ravenous teenagers, all slightly damp and cold, the floor was wet, the light dim. On a low table in the middle of the room they had dumped a couple of dozen plastic bags from various mums and roadside stalls. There was bean curd and puffed rice and a dozen kinds of unspeakable dried things, sweet bread, Snuckers (American) raspberry jam, jioutze (meat dumplings) and instant noodles ... There was a mess. It was the human zoo though that made this scene memorable. Chinese have to be the world's messiest eaters. They are also incredibly sociable. Amid the jostling and shouting and banter their darting chopsticks pushed food into the mouths, it seemed, of anyone who was within reach. I felt like a cuckoo in a nest of baby eaglets, and thanked my lucky stars for the my hepatitis shots.
When the bus driver was rustled up again, about 2.30, we headed higher into the mountains. A young lady with a loud hailer was apparently part of the package deal as guide. She never did tell us anything much useful, but her loud hailer was soon commandeered. I don't know if you've ever heard karaoke sung through a loud hailer, passed from hand to hand around a bus, but I can tell you that high fidelity has nothing to do with it. Madam guide did tell us that there were two thousand steps to climb, and that they were quite dangerous. This seems like the usual tourist hyperbole. At last we reached a pinnacle, somewhere above cloud level, that was marked by one of those swoopy roofed pergola things that nobody nowadays, in the People's paradise, can call a temple.
From our feet to the misty horizon were the serried peaks of a range that marked the border with Jiangxi. Humanoids have been in this region for a million years, so the hills must have had a few stories to tell. Those two thousand steps, when we found them, looked fairly new. They were just the width of a man standing sideways, and they plunged steeply straight over the precipice, down, down, down. No handrails. Stone and concrete steps, wet with cold rain, and a gaping, bottomless ravine below, misted in cloud. This was definitely the place to practice flying like superman. ZL made small whimpering noises and clung to my hand like a limpet. We seemed to crawl down that precipice forever, guessing that each turn around a spur would bring us to the end, whatever that was, and finding instead another perilous stairway disappearing mistily below. Surely someone had planned a walking route through to somewhere, I thought; surely we would find ourselves on some lower bend of the road with the bus waiting. Well actually, no. The long centipede with tired teenage legs finally butted its head against a half-cave of old grey sandstone, half way down an immense cliff face which the track had hacked and concreted its narrow way onto. I don't think a Taoist hermit would have deigned to have supper there. The big question in our minds was how the hell do we get out? Yup. There was only one way. And it was a long, long way up. They sure make their tourist spots memorable.
We got back to the villa just on dark. Time for a stroll through the village, and around a corner where we came face to face with the reason for this resort's existence. The more upmarket villas had a waterfront view. There was a dam. Its black waters looked cold and lifeless. We walked out onto the dam itself, and I realized just how precipitous the region was, for a quick look over the crumbling balustrade was enough to make you giddy: another very, very long jump to the dark valley floor below.
Dinner was a matter for fierce negotiation. Thirty customers were a rare prize, but except for the few with rich daddies, these kids were as poor as church mice. At last a place was chosen. It looked to me like more than a long, deep room with a jumble of battered tables and chairs. The cook was somewhere outside, and her family had gone away for the weekend, so the poor woman had bargained to take on the horde single handed. We got a thimble full of hot water each in tiny cups (no tea at this price) and waited. And waited. The promise was seven courses, sometime. Outside there was a bitter wind. Inside there was boredom and body warmth. By the end of an hour most of the kids had exhausted their banter, turned up their collars and drifted out to pretend interest in the bags of dried fish and fungus, or the plastic trinkets in the small open fronted shops. At last, desperate for food, a few had the bright idea of helping the cook at her little collection of gas rings. A giant cauldron of rice was dumped on the floor, bowls quickly filled. Some richly spiced cabbage, diced radish flavoured in a new way, chewy mushrooms that must have been dried, small squares of potato, a black, stick-like tangle of some plant you could only get in the mountains (it tasted fine), a hint of fish plus lots of bones, a huge bowl of thin soup with a couple of eggs floating in it ... Later the students complained bitterly, but as far as I was concerned this near-vegetarian meal was the best restaurant tucker I have tasted in China.
What would pass for after-dinner entertainment? The old black & white TV set in the apartment common room hissed noisily and would only show several patterns of fuzzy lines. It had no aerial. Six of the girls decided to teach me a card game. You had to get rid of your last cards real sneakily, bang them on the table, and the slowest person to pile their hand on top of yours was punished by having to wear a cushion on her head. Many squeaks and giggles. One poor girl a little sleepier than the rest wore a permanent crown of cushions. We gave up about 11pm. The bus was to pick us up at 7am in the morning. I put on six layers of clothing crawled under a musty quilt, and miraculously fell asleep. After two thousand steps you can sleep anywhere.