Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Ghost Town on the Yangtze
In the morning, our tour guide knocks on our door at 7 am. I slept in my jeans so I am ready to go. All I have to do is put on my shoes and socks. After waiting for Jennifer and Maureen to get ready, we head out of the room and off of the ship to the ghost town. Jennifer has her camera so every minute or so she stops to take pictures, Maureen walks incredibly slow. We see the ghost town in the distance. After we climb the first hill up from the dock, an eighth of a mile or so away is a fairly monstrous set of stairs. After ten or fifteen minutes, I get bored waiting for Jennifer and Maureen to catch up with me. I walk on ahead to the vender stands and wait. A flood of tourists from another ship come through like locusts in a Nebraska cornfield while I am waiting. Many of these tourists are westerners. I decide to not wait for Jennifer and Maureen because they may have passed and I did not see them. I will meet them back at the ship.

Our tour guide sees me and hands me my ticket to get into the town. In broken English she asks me where my friends are. I say as I pantomime that Maureen has trouble climbing stairs. They are behind me somewhere, I think. I walk through the gate. The admission price is much less than what we were charged by our shady travel agent. Following the crowd, I go inside and make my way up stairs and paved foot paths to what must be the ghost town. At one point, I come upon a foot bridge. This is a sturdy looking foot bridge which links to hillsides. I see what looks like a castle beyond the foot bridge. I start to walk across the foot bridge and halfway across I realize how freaked out I am crossing this structurally sound but unsteady footbridge. When I was younger, I loved this sort of thing. As a kid, I loved walking across foot bridges, train bridges, rooftops. Now that I am older, I am not as anxious to scale the heights I once scaled. I walk in the middle of the bridge and I get across.

Once I am across the foot bridge, I walk down some stairs and I walk through the gate of the fortress which is quite majestic. I try to forget that I will have to cross the footbridge to leave the fortress. Souvenir hawkers sell variations of the Scream mask. I wonder if this is a tribute to Munch or to the movie. Ahead is another imposing staircase which I slowly mount.

The Chinese tourists are closing eyes and walking toward a sign of Chinese characters. They then open them and see which character they touched. I am intrigued by this. I want to ask someone about it but I do not know who to ask. Instead I let it remain a mystery.

At the top of the excruciatingly long staircase is the entrance to the castle. I follow the line of people inside. Inside is less than majestic. Decaying wax figures rise and fall. They are not frightening or even surprising. They are sad and dilapidated. This is like a small town haunted house. I imagine something similar in Joplin, MO. I walk through unimpressed. At one point, in the chamber of horrors (I guess every haunted house, castle, mansion, mortuary has to have a chamber of horrors) the lights are flicked on and off. This, I suppose, is to make the ghastly tortures look even more ghastly and the torturers even more torturous. However, this was laughable at most. An older woman, who I assume was from Topeka Kansas, says “Well Isn’t that Scary.” in a sarcastic deadpan way which I thought old women from Topeka Kansas did not talk sarcastically deadpan.

The only frightening aspect of this place is the fifty-odd person pile-up halfway through. That is when I start to sweat. Out of nowhere, the whole group has stopped and is no longer moving. Then we inch up a half a step at a time. I debate trying to go to the back and go out the way I came in but I am stuck right in the middle. Also I am curious why we are stopped and what everyone is looking at up ahead. Perhaps, an emperor from the Tang Dynasty has come back to life and is ready to party. All sorts of Abbot and Costello type possibilities float through my head. For a good 10 minutes, I get to ponder these possibilities because the line is not moving. Slowly, I make it to a half a flight of stairs. Slowly, I climb them. The children in this throng of people are getting moody and anxious and loud. At the top of the stairs, a ticket taker waits to sell tickets. The ridiculous wait was for a small train that fits about five people which goes off into a cave which looked pathetic and uninviting. I pay the money just to get through but I do not ride this train which is the most low budget ride I think I have ever witnessed and I have witnessed some stinkers. I go to the side of the line of people waiting for the train and I walk on through the rest of this haunted temple or castle or whatever in the crap it’s supposed to be.

Once I am outside, I decide to brave the footbridge again. I have had enough of the ghost town. Halfway across the bridge, I have anxiety. I tell myself I am fine; the bridge is fine; I will not plunge to my death.

Once I am over the bridge. I walk up to another temple on a different hill. In the side of the hill there is Buddha’s face. I am trying to get to it but I cannot figure out how to do it. It looks like it is some sort of entrance. “Candy’s Going Bad” from Golden Earring’s Moontan album briefly goes through my head. “Candy took the pearls got a head of the girls, got on top and found the secret entrance.”

As I climb and get to various plateaus, I debate whether to climb up higher or go back to the boat and rest. After I come upon my fourth temple, I realize they are starting to all look the same. I really wanted to see the hanging coffins which I assume are at the top of the hill. However, since I am not Chinese, I could not ask anyone where they might be, anyone who would know that is. The sun is starting to really cook. I decide to go back to the boat. I am happy I have made a decision. The walk down the hill is effortless.

At the bottom of the hill, I buy a cold coca-cola in a can from a vendor. This truly hits the spot. I am happy. I see a blue t-shirt with a white dragon outline which I like but I do not want to pay 80 yuan. The seller pulls out my size. I say no. A passerby - Chinese English speaker – tells me to offer 20 yuan ($2.50). I do. The vendor takes it. The passerby smiles at me. I smile back and walk to the ship. I see our tour guide while I am walking to the ship. I ask her about the Buddha head. She tells me that is not part of the tour. I cannot go to the Buddha head. The Golden Earring song keeps going through my head as I make my way into the ship. I am ready to rest.

On each floor, a crew person is seated in the corridor to let passengers into cabins. I am let into 308, our cabin. Jennifer and Maureen are still gone. I decide to have a nap. A nap is not to be. The minute I start to doze off there are kids yelling in the hallway. Across from our cabin, a family of - what looks like - 10 people are staying in a room that can barely accommodate 4.

Again, I try to sleep, more noise. Now, I decide to just lay and look out the picture window. Since we are docked there is no view. After awhile, I hear Jennifer and Maureen come in. I told them I lost them when all of the tourists stampeded into the ghost town. They tell me they did not see the haunted temple side. I tell them they did not miss much. I ask them if they saw the hanging coffins. They did not see them. They told me they are not where you can see them now which I thought was a bit of a rip-off because that is what we really wanted to see and what our shady agent told us about. We dig into our food supply and we each eat our own little bucket of noodles.


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