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Surreal Quiet From China's Millions

May 11, 1986|CARL HOFFMAN | Hoffman is a Washington, D.C., free-lance writer.

PEKING — On Sunday afternoon every street was packed, like the hallway of a large urban high school at class change.

What seemed like millions of Chinese ghosted by on their bicycles or shuffled along the sidewalks, bumping, rolling off each other and sliding past in a constant stream.

Always, an uncanny silence filled the wide avenues, avenues that could have handled 10 or 12 lanes of rush-hour traffic, but which held, instead, only a few buses, trucks and VIP limousines, red flags flapping.

I never grew completely used to those scenes and now, after a 30-day journey through China, I think of them often. Traveling cheaply and independently in China among the Chinese, without benefit of officials or guides, is like being placed in the midst of some great but weird tragi-comedy full of lines we don't know.

We watched, we stared, we groped, we grew exhausted, claustrophobic and tense. But we also had fun.

By Bus and Boat

One morning, for example, we boarded a bus, the first leg of a trip that would take 24 hours to travel 200 miles from Guilin to Canton. The bus was to cover 100 of those miles in 12 hours. A boat would take us the rest of the way.

For 12 hours we bumped over roads that at best resembled the lesser-paved country roads of America and at worst were like strips of the rocky moon laid through rice paddies. Craters and rocks in the road kept us from averaging more than 10 m.p.h. Some of the craters were so bad that, even when barely moving, we were thrown out of our seats.

For 12 hours a constant stream of people walked and pedaled along beside us. Like refugees, the line moved, sometimes only a few people, sometimes a mob. What were these thousands of people doing? Where were they going?

Empty-handed, they were like the ghosts of every person who ever had walked along that road. It was a stunning example of China's millions, that 100-mile column of people.

Drawing the Picture

It was 7 o'clock when the bus deposited us at a hotel in Wuzhou in southeastern China. After an hour or so of standing around trying to find someone who could speak English and direct us to the boat to Canton, I drew a picture of a boat followed by an arrow pointing to the word Canton. Showing it to some people who had been with us on the bus broke them up with laughter.

Yes, they nodded, they all were going by boat to Canton. We should follow them. A few minutes later we all trotted off, my friend and I with our backpacks and they with their assortment of suitcases, small bushes and roots.

Our walk across the Xi-Jiang River on a towering bridge, perhaps 100 feet high, was a scene worthy of a great film maker. A light mist hung in the dusk, shrouding everything in a surreal glow, obliterating and rounding all corners and edges.

The river far below, cut into a deep valley with steep banks, was empty of traffic except for scores of sampans clustered in groups. On each, a weak light glowed through the mist.

Dreamlike Mists

On the opposite bank, rows of five-story European-style buildings looked as if each had lost crucial support beams. No lines were straight, no corners were true. A stiff puff of wind, it seemed, might send them crashing down.

Walking through Wuzhou's wide streets was like walking in a dream. We saw no street lights and no cars.

With the mist, the dim lights from shops, the ting-a-ling-a-ling of thousands of bicycle bells and the people crowding every inch of the sidewalks and stores and flowing into the streets, it was again like walking through a town in which a millennium of ghosts wandered, stalking and haunting the places they once inhabited.

And yet Wuzhou was alive, it was of this world, with the smells of humanity, of damp earth and unwashed bodies, of onions and garlic and spices cooking and food rotting. I was tired, but exhilarated.

When four of us Westerners in Tsingtao told our taxi driver to stop at a tiny, shabby-looking building, he didn't understand. Why would we pay two days' salary ($1) to ride in a fancy car, after staying in the modern high-rise hotel (it was the only one in town and cost $7 a night), to come to this dingy restaurant? We could not give an answer that he would understand. We paid and went inside.

A People's Restaurant

It was a tiny room, about 10 feet square, with a bare concrete floor. The walls, also concrete and once painted yellow, were a faded brown. Around four tables, sawhorse-like benches stood. Two small windows let in the only light.

Almost covering the floor, as in most restaurants in China unfrequented by Westerners, were the day's bones, fat, and any other piece of food deemed inedible and spat out. With the concrete walls and floors, the dim light and the bones littering the floor, it felt more like a cave inhabited by Cro-Magnon men than a modern restaurant.

As the few customers stared at us over their dumplings, we were immediately assaulted by the family in charge: a dark- skinned man with huge teeth; his wife, a round-faced woman who seemed anxious to please, and a chubby boy.

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