Climb, Crawl, Collapse.

We have been living in China for a month, and that feeling of being settled is settling in on us. We have routines and responsibilities. We go to the grocery store. We do our laundry. We mop our floors and make our bed. It’s no longer a vacation—it’s our lives, which means that little itch has started up. That itch to go places and see more than what’s right outside our door.

Well, if “the itch” is a cry for spontaneity, newness and adventure, I got plenty last week when I walked in the door at 9:00 pm after teaching my new English class, and Chris informed me we were leaving for Huganshan (Yellow Mountain) in promptly 25 minutes.

The great adventure involved a lot of traveling, the most enjoyable of which was the night train. We had a sleepover with Britton and Heather in our cozy little train compartment. I imagined myself on the Hogwarts Express and was half expecting someone to wheel up a little cart selling Bertie Bots Every Flavor Beans and chocolate frogs. It was amazing. We are big fans of the train. Alas, our sleepover ended at 5:00 am when our compartment stopped gently rocking and we were booted onto the dark platform. It was dark but it definitely wasn’t lonely.

We literally got attacked outside the train station. The townspeople who make their living from tourism are very… determined. We were herded and haggled. We were pushed and pulled and yelled at. As Chris was boarding one bus, a man owning another grabbed his backpack and tried to drag him off. Ponchos, walking canes and maps were shoved in our faces. The barrier of the bus didn’t do much to deter the townspeople who just shoved their ponchos and maps against the bus window–for anyone with un-buyer’s remorse (remorse after having not bought a spectacular item). Chris had un-buyer’s remorse and bought a map, which we lost 30 minutes later.

We were finally tucked away on a packed bus that was ready to take us the rest of the way to Huangshan when the bus driver kicked us off. There were more people at the station in need of seats, and the Chinese prefer to serve their fellow Chinese before they do a foreigner, so we got the boot. Once again, we braved the storm of maps and ponchos and awkwardly boarded the bus of the man who tried dragging my husband away 10 minutes earlier.

After a bus ride and another bus transfer we finally made it to the base of… Yellow Mountain. Dun dun dun dunnnn. In a sentence, Yellow Mountain is one of China’s most popular national parks, and it is comprised of intense granite mountains… and that is pretty much all we knew upon our arrival. Oh us of little preparation. Fortunately we knew enough to wear hiking clothes and a coat.

Yellow Mountain is unique for the little villages across its summit, but that’s only half the fun. You have to get there first.  The ascent can be done one of two ways: there is a gondola that will sweep you away to the summit in 10 minutes, OR you can take the road less traveled and hike. Naturally we had to be adventurous and opted to hike/climb/crawl to the top.

From the base of the mountain to the top is 5 miles of stairs. As I write this, stairs don’t sound that daunting, but seriously… picture doing the stair stepper for 4 hours. We climbed over 10,000 stairs. To say that my legs were giving out is an understatement. To say that I was exhausted would be such an understatement it would be insulting. To say that these guys carrying hundreds of pounds of cargo beat us would be an overstatement. Sadly.

So you remember how I mentioned the village on top of Yellow Mountain? It is complete with hotels, a few restaurants, and small markets. Everything in the village from linens to food has been carried up there by a porter. Why don’t they send it up on the gondola? It’s a mystery to me too, but they don’t, so these men get stuck with the job, and it’s absolutely remarkable that they can make the journey with 200+ pounds balancing on a piece of bamboo across their backs.

I was carrying a tiny camera backpack with a few toothbrushes in it, and I was literally crawling on my hands and knees. These men are slow and steady. They make $30 a day for their pack mule assent and decent. I was humbled. I was especially humbled when the porters we started the climb with beat us to the top. And then I was humbled and saddened when I saw a porter dropping his load at a hotel. He had raised purple welts across his shoulders the weight of his load. My heart goes out to the porters, especially this sweet man who has been carrying a load up every day for the past 20 years.

When we finally made it to the top, we aimlessly sat around freezing. The “village” (a cluster of out-of-our-budget hotels) was a little anticlimactic. Most people ride the gondola to the top and then have the strength to explore the endless paths (stairs) that meander across the mountaintops and take in Huangshan’s stunning views. However, we didn’t go that route, so instead we got to the summit and collapsed until we were cold and bored and decided to find a place to stay for the night.

The “dorm” we stayed in was very suspicious. It was an under the table transaction, and it was far from great.  Since there weren’t any amenities (a lobby, pool, a shower.. hot water), and we were sharing a room with an old Chinese couple, once the fantastic sunrise ended, there wasn’t much to do but go to bed.

The four of us slept together on three pushed together bunk beds. The ponchos were a precaution against the blood, crusties, and other stains on the “clean” bedding.

Only one of many photos showing the lack of cleanliness and overall sketchiness of our dorm.

5:00 the following morning we were up—Yellow Mountain is known for its spectacular sunrises, and the Chinese don’t seem to avoid early rising the way most Americans do, so we had plenty of company.

During the night, the clouds had settled over and around Yellow Mountain, leaving everything misty, cold, and dark. We all stood around squinting at the horizon through the mist, doubtful that the show was going to be worthy of the sleep we sacrificed, but then a hint of light preceded the sun’s reveal, which brought enough warmth to suck away the cloud like a giant vacuum. Once the intense wind had settled and our view was cleared, the sun made its grand entrance.

We whish we would have had the mental and physical strength to explore more of Yellow Mountain, but we were exhausted from too many stairs and too little sleep, so we opted to end on a high and ride the gondola down the mountain. Best decision of the day. We sat back and stared in wonder at Yellow Mountain and wondered how we had made the trek the day before.

Down in the Dumps

Well…. I survived my first trip to a Chinese ER! Fortunately, I’m fine, but over the past week I have been suffering from a series of random symptoms that come and go.

Here is what’s been on my plate:

–      Horrible neck pain. I can’t describe how crippling this becomes when it’s at it’s worse. I usually start the day feeling fine, but go to bed only being able to turn my head 2″ in either direction.

–      Accompanying my clenched neck have been horrible throbbing headaches that start at the base of my head and run down my shoulders.

–      I’ll occasionally break out in a low fevers or get the chills.

–      Stomach cramps.

–      Gombooie (an unhappy time on the toilet)

Web MD and I are good friends, so over the past week we have been researching my symptoms and coming up with a series of morphing diagnoses. I started with lymphoid cancer, then moved to appendicitis, and then landed on meningitis (I seriously have 5 out of 7 symptoms).

Last night I had a 30-minute walk home. By the time I got inside I was pasty white, covered in sweat, and neck was giving me intense headaches. So I did what any reasonable person would do, I broke down in tears and told Chris to take me to the hospital.

The hospitals cleanliness standard was a little questionable, but it was cheap as dirt and reviewed as one of the top three in Nanjing. We paid $1 to meet with a doctor (the ER only had one on staff), who asked me some questions and told me to get my blood tested and have x-rays taken ($15 total).

For the blood test, I just walked up to a window, stuck my finger out, and a nurse (who didn’t change her gloves) pricked my finger and squeezed the blood into a little vile. Then the guy behind me hander her a cup of his pee. I’m just grateful he was behind me.

After my x-rays were taken, we took our results back to the doctor who told me I have sprained or strained the muscles, ligaments, or nerves in my neck??? Not very specific, but his English medical vocabulary was as limited as Chris’ Chinese medical vocabulary, so we kind of guesstimated.

I wish I had a cool story about how my neck got messed up since I’m being a drama queen about it, but unfortunately it was caused by an accumulation of dumb random things.

–      I’m sure our 14 hour plane ride helped jump start the process

–      As previously mentioned, Chris and I hauled all of our luggage in and out of airports, multiple taxis, elevators, in a hotel, out of a hotel, and eventually up to our apartment

–      Our crappy bed

–      Our table broke and our landlord is too cheap to replace it, so I have spent my computer time (which is considerable) on the sofa, which is also broken (missing a leg). When my couch is leaning at a 20 degree angle, I prefer to sit in this position:

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(Apparently it’s very bad for your neck unless you are a cat.)

–      I read 200 pages of a book in bed.

–      In the past week Chris and I have watched 10 episodes of White Collar from my computer. We have a very short Ethernet cord, so it has taken some skill to perch the laptop on a chair and pull it as far into the doorway as it will stretch, then struggle to comfortably see the computer from our bed.

Like I said… an accumulation of really lame things.

As for the random fevers, stomach cramps, and gambooie, I have a lovely little thing called gastroenteritis (bacteria that festers in your intestine and gives you the poops). Our doctor in the states sent us with plenty of antibiotics, but we’re only 2 weeks into our yearlong trip and have already made a decent dent in our stash. I feel a care package coming on!

Massage or Molestation?

My back and neck have been really messed up since our move here, in part due to hauling 300 lbs of luggage around China, and in part to the box spring disguised as a mattress that I sleep on. Anyhow, it got to the point that the pain was giving me headaches and making me feel sick to my stomach.

Chris tried rubbing my back but then mysteriously “injured” his thumbs and suggested that I get a professional massage. Chris, being the gentleman he is, didn’t want to leave me alone with a Chinese masseuse and a giant language barrier, so he figured he would get one too. How convenient for him.

We did a bit of research online, which mostly turned up escort services (not really my cup of tea), so yesterday we decided to try The Private Club Spa that’s connected to our apartment building.

Sometimes the line between sexy and “high end” fabulous get a little blurred in China. If it’s gaudy, over-the-top, and is attempting to look expensive, the Chinese eat it up. The spa was no exception. Gla-mer-ous. We’re talking, suited doormen (the only male staff), a giant ell-filled fish tank, chandeliers, a silver victorian sofa, and shag rugs. In America, my better judgment would say, “Chintzy brothel? Hell no. ” However, this is China. My judgement was skewed.

While I had reservations about the spa, Chris seemed convinced that it was professional, so I requested a full body massage and Chris a foot massage (since they didn’t offer anything for people with injured hands).

Fortunately Chris and I were put in the same room. It was just as elaborate as the lobby. The chandeliers and silver wallpaper didn’t seem as out of place once we saw velvet beds instead of massage tables (red flag? just wait.)

Our second point of confusion was that there wasn’t a sheet to lie under once we undressed, so we changed into the thigh high silky robes provided. Chris looked something like this (with basketball shorts poking out underneath–fortunately).

At this point I started getting the awkward giggles. My robe wouldn’t stay shut and Chris looked hilarious in his, but that was just the beginning of our problems. Where was my masseuse going to stand? My bed was walled in on three sides except for where my head went. I’m an awkward laugher.  I was bordering on hysterical when my masseuse walked in wearing tiny cleavage-exposing black dress. And Chris’ masseuse?  She was modest as could be in a proper white uniform. (We later learned that they were from two different departments.)

My massage started out a little odd but nothing too alarming. My masseuse, a North Korean woman (?!), had me lay face up while she rubbed my sinuses, stuck her fingers in my ears, and pulled my hair. Then it got down right weird. All of the sudden she straddled me (mind you, her tiny black dress that had ridden up to her underwear… I had an unfortunate vantage point), took my robe off, and started rubbing down my front–my whole front. Then she proceeded to knead my stomach and my uterus. Ouch. FULL body massages are taken quite literally here.

After getting my intestines rearranged, my masseuse flipped me on my stomach and pulled my legs over my head. I never knew I had such potential to be a contortionist. Then she started twisting half my body one way, and throwing the other half in the opposite direction. Chiropractic stuff. My experience in China has taught me that people here tend to cut corners. I was praying that this woman was a rare exception and had some sort of training at a somewhat authentic school.

The massage continued as she punched me in the legs and feet. Nothing relaxes me quite like a good solid beating. And nothing can re-induce the awkward laughter (made even more awkward when you’re topless) like getting beat up by a North Korean.

The highlight was definitely my back massage. It was the weirdest/most amazing massage of my life (minus the first 45 violating minutes that I’m working to erase from my memory.)

Meanwhile, Chris’ modest masseuse sat on her stool and rubbed each of his toes for 10 minutes. His massage was so uneventful that he fell asleep and didn’t witness the atrocities against me.

Here are my takeaways for the day: #1 – Never send your husband to an Asian spa alone. Ever! #2 – I overpaid to be violated. We were charged $60 for both massages (a steal of a deal in the States), but we should have only been charged $35. They take foreigners to a different room that has more expensive prices posted. #3 – We learned that The Private Spa Club offers more… in depth services. Come on, I was straddled by a woman whose boobs were hanging in my face for an hour, and my masseuse looked highly confused when she saw that I was getting the massage rather than Chris.  #4 – if you ask for a full body massage in China, you better expect a full body massage.

UPDATE: We have since returned home from China, and in our 9 months of living in the same building as the Private Club, I’m still the only women I have ever seen enter the spa. We have also had many Chinese friends confirm that it’s notorious for its not-so-upstanding services. Big surprise there.