Some background: Heqing city is about 45 minutes over a half-paved, half brutally rocky and dusty stretch of road. Where most roads under repair gradually converge as the unpaved stretch shrinks, the opposite appears to be happening on the DaLi Road that leads from Sanzhuang (my school) to Heqing. At this rate, the road will be completely unpaved by May. The peculiar thing is, I’m not quite sure the taxi/van drivers have gotten the message. While they grumble about the shittiness of the road, it has zero noticeable effect on their desire to be reckless; in fact it might even fuel it. It’s 45 minutes of straight rally raid action every time I need to go into the city. It’s probably something like Paris-Dakar, excepting the fact that it’s a necessity that people have to travel every day.
Heqing is a strange city, almost eerie in a way. Demographically speaking, it’s difficult to quantify. China generally calculates population at the lowest level based on counties. Whereas, in the US, I know that my hometown of Sherman has 4,000 people, that data would not exist in China unless measured by local authorities. According to the one line Wikipedia page, Heqing County has 260,000 bodies. I’d guess the city itself is home to around 200,000 of those. I’d also guess, few people outside Dali and especially beyond Yunnan have ever heard of it. Think about that: That’s akin to someone from Massachusetts never having heard of Hartford. That’s how gargantuan this country is. Heqing is pretty substantial. It lacks urban planning. Like many cities in this part of China, it’s still kind of figuring out what a city is. It’s very tied to the countryside. Seeing chickens is not unusual. It’s a perfect microcosm of what a city in the region should look like, kind of in the way that New Orleans embodies South Louisiana as faithfully as a metropolis could.
It’s bounded on all sides by a mammoth string of mountains. Consequently, when you’re within it’s confines, you feel detached from the rest of the world, which is accurate. It’s a big city essentially in the middle of nowhere. I think there are a bunch of cities/big towns in the American West that follow this pattern. Salt Lake City comes to mind, minus the magic underwear. It’s a far off feeling of, if something happened to you, absolutely no one would know. Note to any current or potential fugitives out there, splurge on the plane ticket and come to Heqing. You’re much better off here than Amish country. At dusk, the weather turns chilly. The city’s overriding grayness is intensified. Roll up doors rise to reveal the pink lights of brothels, girls in plain view, waiting. There’s a street of bars that seems almost perpetually devoid of patrons. The silhouettes of the massive mountain peaks are still visible in the near distance.
While I think geography adds to the muted spook of Heqing, a great deal has to with demography. Heqing has a population of 200,000 relatively poor people, most of who probably grew up or still live in the countryside during the week. Yet it’s built like a city with 300,000 people that caters to a slightly more urban, moneyed crowd. It’s as though the bars and hotels and massive Karaoke parlors are waiting for development that surely will come, it just hasn’t yet. It’s an extremely prevalent phenomenon in China, usually seen on a much grander scale. For example, there’s an unintentionally infamous city in Inner Mongolia by the name of Ordos. It was built for a capacity of 300,000, anticipating the rapid increase in Chinese urbanization, yet currently houses less than 30,000 people. Needless to say, not the greatest ROI. So, the anomaly at hand is not desertion, even though we would call a place like Ordos a “ghost town.” It’s the opposite. Cities are sitting there, waiting for life to arrive as opposed to come back. Heqing is this on a vastly less intense scope.
A few months ago I went to Heqing with my two co-fellows, Xiaojie and Yanan, to spend the night with a married couple that teaches at my school. We rode into town in the husband’s new Volkswagen. We started the evening at a hot pot restaurant. I got a little tipsy, but was ostensibly all there. After dinner, we set off to check out Heqing’s only tourist attraction: A site where Mao and his cadres passed during the Long March. It was certifiably cold at this point, probably 7 pm. We drove into the countryside, which is still kind of the city, but is definitely countryside. It was dark. I could make out the frosted sunflower patches bent over backwards in the moonlight
I had to urinate, real bad, bad enough that I asked Mr. Yang, the driver of the VW and our gracious host to pull over. I opened the door and walked to the side. The car pulled up, presumably to give me a little privacy. As I got out, I surveyed the scene. It was pitch dark. I could not see a thing. I took one step forward and WHOOOSH. The next thing I knew I was on the ground between two narrow stonewalls and covered in all kinds of shrubbery. My elbows and back were completely torn up, but not to the point where it wasn’t funny. Naturally, I was fully confused. I looked up and I was at the bottom of an 8-foot hole. This is a hole in which you actually had to look up to see out of. It must have been a drainage canal; luckily it wasn’t the rainy season. My clothes were caked in dirt, thorns, and miscellaneous. I probably looked like the kid from Hatchet, even though I’d spent considerably less time in the elements. I arched myself up. I still had to urinate, so I took care of business in the ditch and climbed out. If I were 5 feet tall, I honestly think I’d still be down there; it was that legit of a hole. I walked towards the VW.
I explained the story. Everyone felt bad, but obviously they thought it was rather absurd and hilarious, given their blatant inability to stifle laughter. I sat down next to my co-fellow, who is quite shy and whom I rarely share much beyond pleasantries with. At that moment I realized my pants were completely ripped, right in the sweet spot. No wonder it had been so easy to pee down in the hole. I looked at her, she totally knew. I did my best cover up job. The group consensus was to forgo Mao this time.
When we got back to their apartment, I had the epiphany that my arms and back were in pretty prodigious amounts of pain. First order of business was to get the clothes off. Remember, the pants are thoroughly ripped, creating a window into my world, if you will, and my sweater is comprehensively thorned. Unfortunately, the man of the house, Mr. Yang is about 5’4”, so I spent the rest of the evening and the subsequent day wearing essential capris and a shirt that even The Situation himself might deem too tight. When I came out of the bathroom, looking like a gay Italian guy ready for a night at the club, there was a bottle of Baijiu sitting on the table. It was for my wounds. Too perfect. I wasn’t sure if I should drink it or use it topically. I knew I didn’t want either option. I told them I couldn’t’ do it. So, the couple went out to get my pants fixed and grab—at least what was labeled as—a bottle of rubbing alcohol. My co-fellows and I spent the next hour and a half de-thorning my clothes. Everyone was incredibly hospitable if not thoroughly amused.
I could make a grand philosophical connection here wherein I contrast falling into a ditch with my overall experience in China. I suppose it’s possible to muse on how each day I find myself unexpectedly falling into and climbing out of the metaphorical drainage canal. But, truthfully, the moral of this story is: If you ever find yourself on the street in Heqing, China with an uncontrollable urge to urinate, look before you fall into an 8-foot hole. Words to live by.