<By Ilaria Mazzocco>
She wore a large wide brim hat, I wore a tank top with huge sweat stains. She was wearing the kind of bell bottom jeans with embroidered flowers that are fashionable in China. I was wearing a pair of jeans my younger sister had discarded and that I’d unevenly cut off at knee-height. They were so dirty I wouldn’t have looked fashionable even in Brooklyn. Her bag was small and colorful. Mine was large and bulky. She was charming and all smiles, I was tired and grumpy. So, all in all, it may seem surprising that when Zhai Lian asked me to share a room in the Shuhe youth hostel, in my broken Chinese, I declined.
So what if there weren’t any vacancies in the women’s dorms? I was going to sleep in the men’s dorms. It only took me a minute to spot condom wrappers and a flyer for a strip club in the smelly room. It only took me a couple more minutes to return to the lobby and ask her quietly if she still wanted to share a double.
She didn’t like to travel alone, “Chinese people don’t like to travel alone” she explained. So she had posted a note at the entrance of the historical town. “Woman traveling alone seeks companions to go to Shang-ri-la.” That’s how Little Wang and Teacher Lu ended up hanging out in our room the first night.
I didn’t realize it, but I was the fourth member of the expedition.
“You should come with us to Shang-ri-la.”
“No, I think I want to go to Zhongdian.”
“Zhongdian IS Shang-ri-la.”
“The government changed the name a few years ago.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Come horse-back riding with us tomorrow!”
“I think I’ll do my own thing.”
My own thing was a beautiful walk across the fields to Baisha, which turned out to be a crappy tourist trap. I never hated Bruce Chatwin, the Lonely Planet and all travel writers as much as I did that day.
And that’s how I decided that trying to do it the western loner way wasn’t worth much.
I marched in the hostel room and announced:
“I’ll come to Shang-ri-la with you.”
After that I pretty much packed my guidebook away.
I ended up traveling with her for the next week and a half. Maybe it was less time, things get blurry. It seems like so much longer. There were many long bus rides. Winding roads, rainy weather, green fields.
Zhai Lian was a teacher. For the first few days she refused to tell me what subject she taught. The fact that she would every now and then translate a word for me should have been enough of a clue that she was an English teacher.
Her English name was Lydia.
“I looked it up, it’s the name of an ancient country.”
Her two year old also had an English name, Sunny. When she asked I said that it wasn’t common, but that I guessed it was an okay name. My Chinese name is Yi-Rui. “It’s a good name” she commented. A couple of years later I dated a Chinese man who said it sounded like a name for a boy. She had been too polite to tell me. Then again, I didn’t tell her Sunny is not a name.
We made a funny group. Teacher Lu, a 30 something high-school math teacher. Little Wang, an 18 year-old traveling around the country before going off to college. Lydia, who had left her child and husband at home in Sichuan to take a vacation. Me, a foreigner with a large backpack. People would stare at us. I told them Little Wang was my little brother. Lydia told them I was her little sister. We were all younger siblings to teacher Lu. He took many pictures of us, but Lydia deleted them all by mistake.
In one hostel someone brought a couple of dead rabbits and we all ate the roasted meat in front of a bonfire while telling stories. I couldn’t understand them, but Lydia would explain things in simple words. She would tell people “speak slowly and clearly and our little foreigner will understand what you’re saying.”
She was the brightest and smartest of all at the bonfire. I felt proud to be her friend.
When, a few days later, she got drunk for the first time in her life she told me: “Don’t get married right away. Otherwise when you meet a cute boy you can’t be together with him.” Later that same night she told the Tibetan guide who had gotten her drunk that she was married. He told her it was a pity.
Her hair was permed and dyed a reddish hue. Only when she showed me her ID picture during one of the long bus rides did I realize how good it looked on her. The pale-looking girl in the picture had limp dark hair and large bags under her eyes. It had been taken soon after her pregnancy. She would have been 24, a year older than me at the time.
“Do you believe in love at first sight?” she asked one day while riding a bus to Dali.
“I don’t know”
“I didn’t think I would become friends with a foreigner, but now you’re my friend. I never thought I would fall in love with someone at first sight but I did and it was with a foreigner.”
Lydia was in love with a man from Iran she had met in Shanghai. They had met at a bar in Shanghai a few weeks earlier. He asked her to go back with him to his room. She said no. He gave her his email address. She opened a Gmail account and would Gchat with him while I wrote emails to my parents and boyfriend. The Iranian man didn’t speak Chinese. They wrote in English to each other. “I want to go to Iran, it must be a beautiful country. He sent me pictures, here! Look!”
They were beautiful pictures.
It was very beautiful in Yunnan. The snow-capped mountains near Shang-ri-la loomed over us. The clouds floated close to the ground in Dali. Even Lijiang, despite the hoards of tourists, retained some charm.
One night it was raining very hard in Shang-ri-la. We huddled under an umbrella.
“Is your boyfriend now your first boyfriend Yi-Rui?”
“How many boyfriends have you had Yi-Rui? My husband was my only boyfriend, we went to high-school together.”
“Why did you marry your husband?”
“Our families, they pressured us. It seemed good. After I graduated from college we married, and then we had our son.”
“Why don’t you marry? I mean, what is the word… divorce?”
“Because it’s not easy. If I explained it you in Chinese you wouldn’t understand. I don’t know how to explain it in English.”
“It’s about society?”
Sometimes her husband would call. When she picked up she was usually brief. He told her to come home. She said she’d stay in Yunnan a few extra days.
“It’s so beautiful here.”
We parted ways with Little Wang and teacher Lu in Shang-ri-la. They went on to Deqin. We stayed and then took a bus back to Dali. On the bus we met a young man from Shanghai. He was Christian, wealthy and knowledgeable. He made me uneasy. Lydia didn’t like him. “He’s not as easy-going as our teacher Lu.” He wasn’t. Lydia wanted to eat roasted chicken skin and he insisted we eat stir-fried dishes.
We left him behind.
We shopped. Lydia loved to bargain. She would name a price and walk slowly away. Then a sly smile would cross her face as she would whisper to me “Wait…wait.” When the shop-keeper would run out shouting “Ok, ok, fine,” she would lift her index and tell me “See?”
She bought bright scarves and blouses. She looked pretty.
“What am I going to do with these clothes? I’m spending too much and I’ll never wear them.”
“I would never wear such bright things in the city.”
I remembered her ID picture. I said nothing.
Then we got to Kunming.
Lydia flew back to Sichuan that same night. A couple of weeks earlier a bomb had exploded on a bus in Kunming, so her family bought her plane tickets; it was safer than riding the train she said.
We met a young girl on the bus, and Lydia insisted we share a room. Two girls traveling alone should join forces, she explained. But the girl and I had nothing to say to each other. She spoke to her boyfriend the whole night and had no patience with my Chinese. I thought she was silly.
I moved to a hostel with mixed dorms after that. There were no condom wrappers in the room and everyone else was so dirty and hairy I didn’t feel so out of place. I met a retired truck-driver from Mexico, a student from Oxford, a teacher from Italy and a few other people. They were all very interesting. Most were men. I could bargain better than any of them.
I haven’t seen Lydia since, although I have been back to China. She invited me to visit her. I don’t know why I didn’t go, maybe I didn’t want to meet her husband.
She told me she spent a whole month in Zhongdian the summer after we met. I don’t know if she saw the Tibetan guide again. I also didn’t ask about the Iranian man. She didn’t mention him. She recently asked about my boyfriend. I didn’t tell her I broke up three times with three different boyfriends since I met her. I just told her we broke up.
Sunny is doing well she says. He is learning how to read and write but is very naughty. I should hurry up and visit them before he’s all grown up.