Every time the lightning strikes, I see the outline of the Wall.
It’s brooding, looming over me and everything else. I can’t see anything else of the city. I don’t even know for sure this is a city. It feels like a road to the Wall. (Then again, I think this city may just be made up of roads that lead to the Wall.) I know the streets are cobbled at least. The taxi goes, clunk clunk and I’m jostled in the back.
…I think this is a taxi. God, I hope this is a taxi – a real one, a licensed one, one that won’t take me into the woods and leave me there with nothing. I should have thought this plan through. I shouldn’t have arrived at – gosh, what time is it, even? I lost track between my nap at the table I finally nabbed at that KFC back in Tiyuan and when the train arrived. It took 30 minutes to get that table. By then my food was cold. But the table felt good, like the first stolid place I’d sat all day. That table was worth it. Where was I?
The taxi clock says it’s 12:33am.
What is wrong with me? It’s 12:33am, and I’m in a questionable taxi and all I can see is this Wall of mythical eerie proportions every time the lightning strikes. This doesn’t feel auspicious. Maybe I should have stayed with them in Beijing – my friends. Most of them will leave tomorrow – today, I guess, but I could have gone on to Shanghai with the others. I could have skipped all this. But my curiosity always wins those battles – between the rational and the not… especially when danger is involved in the not. It’s barely a fight then. Right now, I wish rational had won.
I wish I could see more than the Wall. It’s right in front of me, taller than I imagined, more ominous than the thickest historical fiction novel written by white guys could have described. There’s a watchtower on top. It’s gray, or black, and tauntingly indestructible – like it wants to be challenged.
The downpour hits the stones of the Wall with such alarming force that it seems to echo. Each plunk! sounds like a clash of an invisible sword swishing through air only to contact stone. God, how much fantasized Chinese history have I been ingesting? KABOOM! I think the ancient cannon sitting beside the watchtower just took fire. I jump each time, until I remember it’s only thunder.
The taxi is slowing down. Oh God. I have my backpack still on and my right hand is clenched around my purse. I have my keys – to my car and apartment in Japan (that I swear simply don’t exist in this same universe) in my other. I learned one time that a carefully, forcefully aimed stab with a key can be as wounding as with a knife (not experientially… just from heresy). I swear I can handle this. As long as all he wants is my stuff. No. That pisses me off. I’ve had my money and camera stolen once this year – I’m not doing it again. I will not be okay if all he wants is my stuff. If he wants the stuff, he will have to get through this key.
But we’re still clunking. We must still be on the cobbled streets, which are inside the Walls. Surely he would take me somewhere outside, where no one could hear the loud American girl scream, if he wanted to rob me.
I’m breathing now. I guess just there before I wasn’t. My chest feels a little lighter. The pictures of this city on google last week were quaint and picturesque. In person, this city is tragic and haunted. I swear this storm is no average one. The sky is so black with fury it’s as though it has been scorned. I’ve never heard a storm this cacophonous, discordant, angry. I wonder what the city did to deserve this; it feels like revenge rain. What secrets does that Wall hold?
There’s dirt everywhere. I can tell that much. Outside my window it’s like the street is washing away beneath the stones, running to escape. It’s all black, but I can see the mud flow rushing in front of us, towards the Wall. Maybe I should join it and get out, too. I wondered why everyone on the train silenced and raised their collective eyebrow when I stood up for this stop. I thought my skin color blinded them momentarily, but it seems they know something I don’t.
I’m drunk off the hour and the history I’ve been reading. I should shake my head to get it out. Don’t let the night and the storm and the wall invent imaginaries. I repeat that.
The taxi’s stopping now. Oh God. I can hear my heart thump thump thumping over the rain and the thunder and the cracks of lighting, and that means that it has got to be on the verge of exploding because the storm is so uncomfortably loud. My hand is on the door. My keys are ready. I know karate. Oh God, remember the karate. Punch high, kick low. No, fuck. Kick high, punch low.
“… guesthouse….?” I hear only a word.
“Punch high kick low!”
Why did I say that?
Chinese. Chinese. Chinese.
Wait. He’s talking to me. His voice is nice. He’s asking me, what? Right. The hostel where I am staying. Confirming the address. No, this is not my hostel. I’m confused. I’ve never heard of this place. Where are we? I have to breathe.
“No, Harmony Guesthouse, please.”
Lights flash on. Was that lightning? No, it’s actual lights. We’re at a hostel. He must be asking me if this hostel is okay. I can see an older man and woman un-boarding and locking the door. It’s an operation. They’re in their night clothes, running out into the rain now. But how did they know — he must have called. Yes. I remember him making a phone call. I roll down my window, the tension inside of me as thick as the rain already soaking through my clothes.
“Stay here? Nice room. It’s very late!”
She speaks English!
“I’m sorry. I’m staying at Harmony Guesthouse. Do you know where that is?”
She crosses her arms and stands firm, not even blinking.
No? This city is tiny. How is she not blinking with all the water running down her face?
A quick look at the clock – it’s 12:46, and I hand the driver the money I already had counted out in my pocket, ready to toss and run if need be. Like if he were going to rob me, offering him our agreed upon price would change his mind. At least I had been smart enough to negotiate a price first, though. One thing done right.
I place the money in his hand and notice for the first time that he has a kind face. He gives me a smile. “See?” it says. “Nothing to be afraid of.” And he called the hostel for me, woke them up so I’d have somewhere to stay. It probably wasn’t nearly as altruistic as that – I imagine he gets a cut when he misdirects customer’s here – but still, I’m not on the side of the road missing all my belongings. All things considered, I misjudged the situation.
I thank him in Chinese and throw myself out of the cab and into the assault of rain. How did I forget to buy an umbrella? The elderly man, who hasn’t said a word, shelters me with his coat and we run inside. Along the way, I watch the woman crack a grin. Well played, I think.
Inside, I ask her how much for a single room.
“We have very nice, very big room for – ”
“That’s okay.” I’m firm. “The simplest you have will be fine.”
I’m not in a position to negotiate, but she either doesn’t realize how lost I am or pretends to not, because she offers me a better price. I’ll take it. I’m relieved to be inside, out of the storm, off the road and away from the foreboding Wall.
She runs to get the key, and I notice for the first time that this guesthouse is old. Old with age and history, not with furnishings. Those are modern – there are computers in the corner, a desk (this must be the common area), oversized wooden tables and chairs I figure even I’ll, at 5’9″, have to hop to sit up on. And in the corner there are two couches, comfortable by their worn looks, with a table in the middle. I peer over and notice the title of the open DVD case – The Green Mile. That doesn’t make this place any less dark.
Before I can take in more, the woman runs back with a key and shoos me out the back of the common room into an open courtyard. We pass under an awning, by a room with lights still on and always – through the pouring rain. She doesn’t need a flashlight, because the lightning fills the entire compound with a glow that seems to last long beyond each strike. It’s beautiful – seeped in history like the pictures I saw on google last week. Nothing new has ever been built in this city – not in modern history. It could have been a teahouse or a private garden residence or a traditional compound in another century.
She keeps us running against the side of the building; I can feel the mud sliming its way across the sleeve and hood of my white hoodie. Why would I only bring a white jacket on a 10 day backpacking trip? We race up a set of outdoor stairs and finally into a covered hallway. Shes tops at the second door on the left and gently unlocks it. She pulls on the light with a hanging drawstring and asks – “Is this okay?”
It’s perfect. The large, traditional kang bed takes up three-fourths of the room. A small bathroom is in the entrance and windows look out over the courtyard. She leaves me to dry off, placing the key in my hand. My jacket is covered in mud, and I try to wash it out, using the continual rubbing motion of the cloth on itself to scrub out my built-up tension at the same time. Now it’s just wet and a slightly lighter shade of brown, but I hang it up to dry anyway. It’s the best I can do.
I crawl into the massive bed – it’s dark brick base a pleasant contrast with the sharp white, thick blanket. It feels like I’m covered with cotton weights, heavy like sleep and soft like sheets. I’m comforted now, breathing normally finally, my fears of earlier seeming as fantastical as they are now distant. I pull out my journal and as I begin to write, finally at peace, lightning cracks so loudly I scream and the lights inside flicker. I swear in the shadows I can still see the outline of the wall. My mind is taunting me.
It’s black now, and outside the thunder once again begins to rumble in tune with my nerves. This City feels far more Forbidden than the well-lit, ornate one that actually carries that name. This much history can swallow a person whole; it’s threatening to swallow me whole right now. I have got to keep breathing. Deeper breaths. I’m in Pingyao, the best-preserved ancient walled city in China, and I’m determined to still be here tomorrow. I repeat this mantra.
I hunker deeper into the heavy blanket, swallow my fear with a shot of pelting rain and wait for morning to draw near.
...before the camera broke.
Random sitenote: my camera broke in Pingyao. That was depressing. I’m not on my third camera this year. It’s called “Tough.” Let’s hope it is!