On Line 6 from Gangcheng Road, a man moves nut beads around a string. The diameter’s length is about half a meter. The man rotates the nut husks quickly. They look like miniature walnuts. They are polished and gleam a bit. He wears garishly coloured training shoes and a golden bracelet and a golden necklace with a jade-like pendant. His head is shaved, he has thick lips and his black shirt features a tiger.
M50 is a “creative park” in Shanghai. There are shops and studios. There’s a small coffee shop. Inside hangs a punching bag with a sign asking its viewer not to punch it. A stuffed rhinoceros toy looks out at the punching bag. It’s a coffee shop less than it is a tattoo parlour. The business model is tattoos and coffee. A fat cat lolls about. It needs its owner to feed it water through a syringe because it lacks volition to consume water.
There is a tattoo in progress. An outline of activity is visible through a frosted glass screen. The target is on the nape of the patient’s neck.
We wait for a train to arrive at People’s Square. There are rows of people glued to their screens. In Cixin Liu’s Three-Body trilogy people who were resurrected from a pre-touch screen old world weren’t able to cope with the idea of swiping at everything. But when the system broke down and they were exiled to a pre-touch Australia, analogue habits gave them an advantage.
The queues at the shop selling sticky sweets split according to the payment method. The cash payment line is shortest. The green sticky shells contain a lightly fishy taste. There’s also a roll that contains red bean paste and a ball wrapped around sesame.
Every country is a prison with its own commercial energy: the energy required to get by and get up. There’s a career, parents, children, a house. Is there more?
The flight from Shanghai to Shenyang is largely unremarkable. But why is one not allowed to keep one’s headphones in during take-off and landing.
A restaurant specialises in “chicken frames.” The meat is mostly gone, perhaps sent to other restaurants. But the main flavour is in the bones anyway and there is still meat left to be picked off. The soup is famous. The place looks like a chicken battlefield. There is a carnage of chicken frames on every table, spilling to the floor. Clients slurp chicken soup immolated with chili powder. The dregs are mixed into waste containers of the cleaning trolley. Bottle openers are fastened to the tables with string.
Nurhaci’s tomb has two stone-sentries. One encourages you to leave before you spend too long with the entombed and become deathly yourself. The other asks you to return soon before you forget to honour the dead.
The first priority of smart-phone owners who board their sleeper-train toward Changbaishan is to reserve an electricity socket. A limited number of sockets line the aisle by the soft sleeper cabins. A girl from next door gets to ours first. One speculates how long she may need it for.
The central ventilator provides steady circulation. Then it stops and the cabin feels airtight and deoxygenated. But apparently, passengers in other cabins think the moving air is too cold. The section attendant sits in his cabin with the power to re-activate the air-vents. He is torn between asynchronously received competing requests. The boy’s face twitches as he weighs the conflict. He turns the ventilation back on. A few hours later it is off again.
A few hours from Changbaishan I glimpse North Korea. Two worlds: high technology cameras on white poles provide the fencing on our side. Old fashioned guard huts line the other side. A boy plays with the force of water in the border river. He engages in a sort of front crawl to get into the current and then he bobs, his head barely visible, as the current catches him. The border runs through the middle of the river. It would not be wise to save him if he began to drown.
A foreigner going across would be a big problem: da wenti! A Chinese person going over would be a much smaller problem. A bit of money would fix it.
There are stories of escape. A mother and daughter came across and booked a night in a hotel in the tourist village. The hotel staff was suspicious and the police came and arrested them. Sent back. What fate?
At Wangtian’e Nature Scenic Area: “The fortune stone is 30 m high and 60 m wide… the phenomena of stone wrinkles in this area are unique physiognomic sights caused by the extrusion and involution of lava flows.” A path called “the custodian of the lion camel” follows the string of pearls. By the holy stream, the root of the earth. Back to the rainbow waterfall? The elephant meditation, but where is the elephant?
At some point, one starts to notice people’s shirts and the slogans on them. Here’s a shirt with a pug, labeled “the pug life.” It goes on: Be Legend. Bear Club 1902. Skechers (sic). Art is either plagiarism or revolution. To make your dreams, try harder.
Groups of 40-80-year-olds wear camouflage and hold their cameras like guns, their fingers twitch on the trigger as they eye me. There’s a rock called “the guy with the cut off face.” A woman washes cucumbers in a dribble of fresh-looking water by the boardwalk. They are pale green and gnarly.
50% of tourists on the west slope are South Korean. A bus, an interchange, another bus then 1000 or so steps to the viewpoint. Carriers are available. At the top there is fierce competition for the choicest selfie viewpoints onto the caldera lake, while the birds compete for territory and food. The smell of a diesel generator complements the crowded view from the far end of the viewing platform. A camera monitors movements here too. A stone marks the beginning of the boundary area to North Korea.
What is the fascination with selfies? Here, I exist?
A taxi drivers says that a North Korean soldier can take on several Chinese soldiers. The North Korean soldier serves for a longer period, 8 years or so. These toughened fighters regularly cross the lake with little motorboats, infiltrate the tourist site offices and steal computers and printers.
Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence plays in all the larger Changbaishan tourist buses and at the park stations. It’s a unifying theme across the western and northern slopes. Silence… A jingled exhortation directed at the seated masses.
Later the first three pages of a menu show dishes with dog meat. The driver had told us about the big three inedibles: dogs, snakes, oxen. All too intelligent to eat. The world is divided by such rules. The driver said that most locals despise those who eat dogs and when an ox grows old the owner will sell it on, unable to slaughter it personally. The beast will cry then, knowing its fate.
Another taxi driver and a conversation about the different types of ginseng available on the market: fast grown, seeded and slow-growing with long roots, and wild. The wild specimens are found by following the birds that feed on the plant.
The hotel has a double-barrelled breakfast buffet, Koreans add to it from their own bags of Kimchi.
The front entrance for the North Slope opens, a queue has already formed. The gate is opened and there’s a sprint to the first ticket office, past a security checkpoint. The x-ray machines are off but the narrow security lanes act as funnels. The crowd compresses and expands again. 3000 tickets had sold before the park opened. Those who haven’t got a ticket online can now stand in line and rest from the first sprint. The tickets are tied to passports or identity cards.
The park is entered on buses. Signs say things like “animals appear, deceleration avoid.” “Set up Eco-Principle.”
Sending voice messages on WeChat is a popular activity on the buses.
The first stop on the way towards the north slope is the Changbai waterfall. The pool at its foot is twenty meters deep. The depth is the result of the waterfall’s impact. The water flows into the Erdaobai river then into the Songhua.
T-shirt phrases: Popular, Get Perfection, See Me Run, MadHatter…
You can buy eggs boiled in hot spring water before returning for the next leg of bus-travel. “Is it clean?” “It is clean.”
More t-shirts: White Black, HipPanda PacMan, Always my way.
Now the final stretch to the viewing point on the northern slope. The crowd is separated into groups by a sequence of barriers. A signal is given, a rope is lowered and the mad rush begins. Now we are in the front pen. A person shoves into me and I push him away. A young person. He looks at me and shouts: fuck, shit, fuck. He shouts it again. Crowds are unpleasant. He continues to mutter as we stand to wait for the next hurdle.
Once at the top, the lake is blue and still and there is a calm breeze. The view is interrupted by selfie seekers. Cameras and cameras. Koreans have longer selfie sticks and seem more organised. Some girls make a V-shape around their mouths and take selfies.
More slogans on clothes: Gimme some more time. Can keep moving forward.
Back in Shenyang and on the metro an advert for Jersey cow milk lines the inside of the carriage: HuiShan 3.7% milk: imported dairy cow, proprietary pasture and forage process, modern self-operated pasture, advanced technology, whole cold chain protected.
A man flies a kite in front of the Imperial Palace drawing a crowd as the kite goes higher and higher. As he reels out the string, he attaches flashing discs and other gadgets to it. The kite is 1.5 km away says its operator. He carries the kite-string with a strap on his shoulder and operates from the hip. More and more lights are fastened as the string is rolled out. Another kite approaches and begins to wind itself into the string. A crisis task-force forms spontaneously and the driver of the rogue kite is quickly found. The winding in begins. The pirate kite is brought to the ground. The operation disrupts a large-scale rhythmical dancing exercise. Everything begins to wind down.
A dancer performs moonwalks. Her white shoes float over the smooth stones.
A young man has paid for a full Buddhist prayer ritual at a temple. As he kneels and bows under the guidance of a monk, I try to read his shirt: “Tyler Askew: when TA isn’t busy being a hot young designer type he rocks it as a DJ at Rude Movements, the club night he confounded at NYCs APT. Partnering with Puma… magazine co-founded, designer and writer… international DJ.” Three pairs of monks face each other as he kneels and stands, and kneels and stands.