My New Tent
Late April of this year (1998), I was hanging out at the Art Bar, our local establishment in Chongqing, practicing my Chinese and enjoying a hot glass of milk with two cubes of sugar--the definition of a delicacy is all relative. An American friend of mine named Dave came in. We covered the basic topics in which foreigners in China are well versed--pollution, being stared at, being ripped off, and basically be misunderstood. As the conversation hit the usual lull Dave perked up and told me that he had something I might be interested in: a tent. Dave has spent the last few summers leading 30-45 day trips through the wilderness for Outward Bound. Every year he receives a catalogue from a few of the outdoor gear companies offering him rock bottom deals. At the end of the catalogue in big bold letters it says, "Do not share this with family or friends." So of course Dave did. He knew I was interested in purchasing a tent and suggested that this might be a good time to do it. I picked something that looked nice, as I have never owned a tent before and know very little. The retail price of my tent is $350 but it only cost me $175. I gave Dave $200 to cover the postage when he sent it off to me and forgot about it.
Fast forward to last week [November 1998]. When I, or should I say my roommate, receives a package from America it does not come directly to our home. Rather a slip with your name on it and a serial number is delivered as mail. You must take the slip, an Chinese issued ID, and some money to a post office on the other side of town. At this International Post Office you have to produce the slip and ID and then pay what seems to be an arbitrary sum of money. An indirect result of receive these slips, besides a lot of hassle, is an immense amount of anticipation. Our mail is deliver long after the "pick up" window has closed, so at the very least one has to wait until the next day to claim their prize. Usually, because the post office is so far, the sojourn often gets postponed a few days. During the interim you search your brain trying to cross reference all the packages you have received with those promised to you from friends and family back home. After narrowing the possibilities down to a few people you always become convinced that you know not only who sent it to you but what is in the package. Most times you are wrong. I had no idea who or what it could be, but decided it was a package of tapes that a young American passing through Hangzhou three months ago had "promised" to send me. And of course, I was wrong. It was not the tapes. Can you guess what it was? That's right, my tent.
My tent is beautiful! It is a really cool, high tech two man tent. It has a sun roof made out of plastic so you can gaze at the stars from the comfort of your sleeping bag. It is hunter green with black and purple trimming. It is really light and very easy to put together. Basically, it is cool!!! I got home and was so excited that my tent, which the day before I had forgotten ever ordering, finally arrived that I pitched it right there in the apartment. After all, it was imperative that I learned all about my new abode before getting out in to the wilderness where I was going to have to rely on it for protection from the elements. After pitching it I was so proud that I made Shannon and a Sakura, my Japanese friend visiting for the week, climb inside and hang out in the tent with me. I was so enamored by this florescent arch of nylon that I was contemplating sleeping in it, but finally decided against it as it quickly got hot and stuffy inside. Undaunted, I managed to fight off my roommates pleas and kept it pitched in the middle of the apartment for five days. Finally, I was coerced in to breaking it down and putting it away. After all, my roommate pointed out, this was an important skill to have mastered before getting out into nature.
Well, after breaking my tent down and packing it up I was content to put it away and not think about it until Feb. when I plan to take my bike trip through Southern China. That is when Susan, my college classmate in Shanghai, wrote me an e-mail telling of the wonders of space. Apparently, as I am sure many of you know, the earth just passed behind the back of a comet, offering up a fantastic view for star watchers. I am an amateur star gazer and definitely enjoy a good shooting start as much as the next guy. As Susan's e-mail made clear, because of the tilt of the earth Asia, and especially China, was in the best location to witness the meteor shower falling from the comet's tail [the Leonids]. Some 4-5,000 meteors an hour were supposed to be visible to the naked eye. That is about 80 meteors every minute, or more than one a second. And, as Susan's e-mail made clear, this natural phenomenon was only going to last for two nights, Nov. 16th and 17th.
Well, I missed the first night, only receiving Susan's e-mail on the morning of the 17th. But after reading her e-mail I decided that there was no way I was going to miss it two nights in a row. I talked to my roommate and her friend about it and we started to devise a plan. Initially we were thinking that we might get up early on the morning of the 18th as the meteors might be most clear just before sunrise. Then my roommate pointed out that maybe the meteor would be the most clear after sun set and we should ensure that we do not miss the show if that was the case. So, then we decided that we would climb a small mountain on the night of the 17th and if we could see nothing, we would return home for a few hours sleep and the return the mountain again predawn to take in the show. As we were contemplating the logic of this plan we both remembered the recently acquired tent. Why not camp on top of the mountain? It was very secluded and I knew many flat places that offered commanding views of the sky. And in a matter of moments the three of us were packed and ready to go--we had three large backpacks stuffed with two sleeping bags, a tent, an air mattress, extra blankets, extra shirts, extra hats, flash lights, water, snacks, a Walkman, portable speakers, some tapes, handi-wipes and mosquito repellent. As we set out for our big hill upon which we were going to spend 10 hours we looked more like the next group of mountaineers ready to attempt an Everest summit. Still, we felt excited and knew that we were quite prepared.
We easily found a cab and within ten minutes we were standing at the foot of my mountain. Kana and Shannon were a little confused because the trail head was directly behind a gas station. They both pointed out that it would probably not be a good idea to camp at a gas station. After all, we would be strictly forbidden from making a camp fire. I told them where to go and we started up the trail. In China if there is any mountain worth climbing, a.k.a it is not being cultivated, then concrete stairs are built. I imagine that this is to make the trip up safer and easier for older people who might not be so agile but it really ruins he whole "nature thing" associated with mountains. After 10 minutes of stairs we were up upon the mountain and started to walk along the ridge. The view of the city below, especially the beautiful and enormous lake in the middle of town, was absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately, when we looked up it was less than desirable. Not a star could be seen. Shannon saw my face drop a little bit and quickly pointed out how much fun camping was going to be.
We spent the next 30 minutes pitching the tent -- after which I was like a little boy on x-mas day -- and collecting firewood. Some sort of maintenance crew had come through recently and cut cleared away a lot of brush and cut back the branches on many of the trees. Initially, it seemed like we would have a ton of fuel for our fire. But after a little searching Kana and I seemed to only be able to find branches that were still wet with life. However, a few trees still standing by our tent seemed to be absolutely dead. With cat like finesse, Kana climbed two trees and ripped off their dead limbs, throwing them to the ground where I cleaned them and set them by the fire pit we made.
We cleaned up and spent two hours sitting around the camp fire talking and enjoying the evening. It was wonderfully peaceful and quiet. Other than the rare car horn that could be heard in the distance, it really did seem like we were isolated and in the middle of no where. As many of you know, it has been my goal this year to find isolated and solitary places to which I can retreat when I want to be with myself or a few good friends and away from the curious stares of the Chinese. This definitely seemed to be as good a place as any. And as upset as I was about not seeing the meteors I felt very centered, at peace and proud of my new enclave. We watched the fire burn down, put the smoking ember out with the water and retreated in to my new tent for a good night's sleep.
I don't remember what I heard first, but at about 6 in the morning, some 4 hours after going to bed, I found myself awake, confused, and surrounded by a lot noise. I could hear a radio, that was clear. First it was faint but then I realized that it was not only getting clearer and closer but that it was right above me. I then heard a lot of grunting and what sounded like rubber smashing into wood. What was that? Just as I started to get really freaked I heard a voice. It was that of a woman, it was in Chinese, and it was right above me. Then I heard another and then another. What was going on? As I lied in my sleeping bag I looked over at my co-habitators and realized that they were sound asleep. I didn't want to bother them but I had to find out what was happening outside. Were we being robbed? Where were out bags? Was it the police? Where they going to fine us? There were many signs around warning against fires. Was there still proof of our fire pit?
As I lay on my back looking out the sun roof of the tent I decided it was not the police. If it was they would have woken us up and dragged us away. No, the voices sounded like those of older people. And just when I tuned it in it became clear that they were debate why the rain flap was on. Just as I started to relax a face appeared in the sun roof. Some one was looking into the tent from above. This gave me a huge fright. I jumped and screamed. The voices outside heard me and they screamed too and jumped back. In doing so one of them hit something that made the whole tent shake. What was going on outside? I decided it was time for me to get up and set things straight.
As I rustled out of my tent the voices came to a sudden hush, as if they were not sure who or what would emerge. I poked my head out and was surprised to see about thirty old people standing around staring at me. They were all in workout clothes and not one was under the age of 65. They had encircled my tent and the less curious ones continue with their morning calisthenics. On the tree behind our tent I could a radio dangling and it was broadcasting the news. Off in the distance, as far as I could see, the trail that had been so barren and isolated last night was covered with old people. They were standing in groups talking, stretching in unbelievable ways with their legs thrown up against a tree higher than their head. Some were moving in very slow motion as if dancing underwater, practicing what could only be Taiqiquan. And others, still, were attacking trees in front of them; hanging from the limbs, karate kicking them, squatting with heir backs to the trees and lunging into it, and one was even bent over at a ninety degree angle smacking the top of his head into a tree. The poor tree curved out right were he was head-butting it and curved back into its upright position right above his head. I don't know if the man was doing these exercises, if you can call it that, there because of the condition of the tree, or if the tree was in that condition from daily pounding by the man. Either way, I couldn't help looking at the tree and feeling a little sad. I guess that makes me a tree hugger, or something. That's O.K. I feel confident enough with myself to come out of the closet. I am a tree hugger. I HUG TREES!!!!!
The whole scene was so surreal. I felt like I woke up in the middle of "Cocoon 3: They Aliens come to China." I guess there really is no isolated and secluded places in China. Or if there are, I have yet to find them. I was a little wierded out by my surroundings and decided that I need to get home and get some more sleep. I woke up Shannon and Kana and we quickly collapsed the tent and packed up our belongings. We did all this under the watchful eye of the locals and every now and then they would ask us something like where did the tent come from? How did it work? and Could they buy one for 100 RMB ($12)? We answered politely, but the three of us were clearly a little confused and upset by being awakened so early.
We climbed down the mountain and laughed, exhaustedly of course, about the morning events. I bitched to Shannon about how silly it was to have a tent if I could not pitch it anywhere away from people. She pointed out that I was going to have future chances this winter on my bike trip and next summer in Tibet. And, as she made clear, the tent stood up to its first test. Not only did it protect us from the elements but also from the Chinese. We all laughed. As bummed as we were about not seeing the meteors and being bothered so early, we climbed in to a cab with laughter in the air and excitement at getting home and climbing into our beds -- a nice, warm location, some what isolated, and away from the gaze of the curious Chinese.