My time in Kaifeng is drawing to a close. In two weeks time I will be returning to the land of sun and surf, a place so vivid and colorful that in my mind it feels like some technicolor dream. I will be leaving China, leaving its deep language, leaving its booming, powerful economy, leaving its MSG filled dishes, and its billion people. This might even be the last time I ever leave China. While I will be leaving a lot behind I will be taking at least one thing with me, and that is a deep appreciation of a place that never left me bored.
In a lot of ways, a place can be judged by the walking opportunities it provides. New Zealand and Australia offer thousands of miles of quiet solitude to draw inspiration. While large tracts of China don’t offer solitude or necessarily peace of mind, they do offer something intangible. That something, romantically put, is the chaos of the unexpected.
Any walk around the streets of any decent sized city in China is bound to be a treasure trove of surprises. Some cute and unique, others profoundly disturbing. One can never guess what else might be walking around the corner. Perhaps it is a man riding a bicycle with tanks of goldfish sloshing from side to side or a small child with its ass hanging out of its split back pants walking a ferret. While you wonder about that smell wafting up below you, your feet will be scuffling past women burning a small fire on the street while a bus whooshes past.
These images, so distant from our lives back in the West, are often cute and funny, and will be retold countless times at dinners in the coming years. Other sights and sounds touch upon things deeper and can be quite difficult to put into a cohesive narrative.
Like a lot of ancient capitals in China, Kaifeng is ringed with a series of old walls that used to serve as the city’s boundaries and means of protection. Actually getting on top of one can be tricky. On a simple Tuesday afternoon I decided to go buy my weekly supply of fruit. After surveying my apples and bananas, I just kept on walking. I walked past dozens of old people doing strange exercises along a traffic clogged road. I walked past workers quickly assembling a sort of fake metal tree, groups of men gambling, Muslim ladies selling strange sweet surprises, and what looked like a Uigher man riding a horse. I daydreamed that he had ridden the horse all the way from Kashgar. Eventually, I came to a small side street that offered a narrow path up to the top of one of Kaifeng’s old walls.
Walking along the top of an old city wall that straddled two old neighborhoods that seemed filled with old people, I nearly fell off when I stumbled upon a white tiger. At first glance, it appeared that this tiger actually belonged to someone and was being kept in a cage in their backyard. I continued walking along the wall and to my amazement came across what appeared to be an abandoned zoo and amusement park. From my perch, I could see peacocks, a lonely bear, and a mob of camels. It was some strange surreal animal park in the middle of a neighborhood. The wall continued past a dilapidated, rusty ferris wheel and what seemed an entire street dedicated to old men sitting and watching small birds in cages.
After some manic sign language and guttural noises that I thought resembled what a Chinese tiger might sound like, I was able to find an entrance into this strange forgotten Eden. I wandered about the neglected monkeys and the abandoned children’s rides. The place was completely abandoned except for a swimming pool filled with old Chinese swimming in frigid water in the frigid air.
My magical Eden was nothing more than a typical Chinese zoo. Cold, lonely, and miserable. My miraculous tiger was actually only one of about 15. Giant majestic beasts stuck in tiny cages. I am sure a philosopher could find apt symbolism in this scenario.
Sitting there in the cold Kaifeng air I stared directly into the proverbial eye of the tiger. It was truly incredible how close you could get to these animals. After some time, I ambled back past the random concrete statues of elephants and the marble statue of Mao overlooking a new hotel development and traffic jam. Walking along bird street I noticed a silver eyed finch in a cage being actively watched by a group of older gentleman. There eyes shifting from me to the bird and back to me. I stood silently for a few minutes watching the bird hop around anxiously in its cage as the guttural noises of Mandarin commented on its every restricted move. Eventually, I bid them adieu and started walking back to my own life, my own apartment, my own job, and my own cage.