“Are you alright?” Michael asked me
“Why are you walking like that?”
“Like you’ve shit yourself”
“Heat rash. Too much heat, sweat and walking. Need to find some baby powder”
Despite the considerable discomfort of my heat rash, we were really happy to be entering China. It was a country we’d both been excited about seeing since day one. This said, we approached the Chinese border with trepidation. While researching the journey, I’d read many accounts of the fastidious nature of Chinese immigration officials. Our first impressions, however, were great and it turned out to be a very easy and friendly crossing. The border patrol guards chitchatted with us using the little English they knew.
“Ahhh England?” said one.
“Manchester United!” said another.
We then had a 10 minute conversation which mostly revolved around naming football players. It was when they greeted the name Marvin Morgan, a Shrewsbury Town player, with the same reverence as David Beckham, that I started to suspect they were perhaps humouring us.
We made it to a nice, tropical looking town, called Jinghong, in three short hitches, including a few kilometres in the back of a painter and decorator’s van with 30 or so Chinese workers.
Jinghong is known in China as ‘Green Treasury’ and ‘Gene Pool of Species’ due to the large area of tropical rainforest. There are oil palms, coconut palms and mango trees, as well as various other tropical plants, displayed in the parks, on the sides of the streets, in front of or behind the houses. This scenery, combined with the relaxed and affable attitude of the local people, made Jinghong one of our favourite places in China.
We were walking down one of the many palm tree lined streets when we saw a sign for tourist information in a European style cafe called the Mekong Cafe. The owner, a lady called Lee-Jeung, spoke perfect English and was able to translate for us our hitchhiking mission. I cannot overemphasise how essential this translation became for us on our journey through China.
That night, at the hostel recommended to us by Lee-Jeung, the Dodo Hotel, we met a nice American couple called Hill-Billy, or ‘Hillary and William’, as they perhaps prefer to be known. Hillary had a bit of a Gwyneth Paltrow look about her and William looked like Steve the bar tender, from Sex and the City.
We were walking along the promenade, next to the river, sharing travelling stories, when we stumbled across some live rock music being pumped out of a buzzing venue.
“It must be a wedding!” said Hillary, as we were ushered to sit down by a few people in tuxedos. We were sat at a bench to the left of the stage while the wedding congregation were all revelling in front it. The band that was playing seemed as drunk as everyone else and a few members of the party went up on stage to have a go at singing.
“We did exactly this the other day,” chuckled William, “We were walked past a wedding party and the bride and groom invited us to join them”
“We were the guests of honour! Everyone is so friendly here,” added Hilary.
Once we’d sat down and the beers were ordered, a young man approached us with a camera.
“Hello!” he said. “My name is Du Yao, I’m the photographer. The bride wants to know if she can have some photo with you. Is okay?”
“Bring her over”
Soon a large crowd had gathered around us and, after one of them had heaved a crate of beer onto our table, complements of the house, they all had their photos taken with us, some of them in groups and some individually. It would always end the same: once the camera had flashed, the person would yelp, “Gambe!” which basically means ‘down it!’ –the method of drinking favoured by the Chinese, especially when with foreigners.
Once ‘gambe’ had been called, our excited companion would start glugging down their drink as fast as they could without so much as a glace to confirm that we’d accepted the contest. The fact that in China we felt like we were representing the entire western hemisphere made it very difficult to reject such challenges. The trouble was, as soon as the first ‘gambe’ domino had been tipped, this set off a chain reaction, and just as we’d squeezed that last drop of warm, frothy Chinese beer, another guest with a cheeky smile would be at our side yelling “GAMBE!”
It didn’t take long before we’d had to ‘gambe’ with every single guest at the bar and very soon we were all as wrapped up in the happiness of the occasion as the guests were themselves.
Towards the end of the evening, after more ‘gambes’ of beer then my mind will allow me to remember, I was busy trying to impress a pretty Chinese girl that Michael and I had decided looked like a glasses wearing version of Chun Li, from the computer game Street Fighter II (1991). I’m sure you can imagine the scene: there I was, oozing charm from every conceivable orifice, when I spotted Michael, across the table, giving me envious glances because he was stuck in a conversation with a girl that we had decided looked a bit like E. Honda, from the computer game Street Fighter II (1991).
Mwah ha ha, I thought, with a smug look of self-satisfaction. Spinning bird kick for Richard, 100 hand slap for Michael. Perfect. Just when I thought my prospects couldn’t get any better:
“So, Chun Li, would you like another drink?”
“I really shouldn’t, I feel drunk already,” she tittered.
“Double gin and tonic it is. I’ll be right back.”
Upon my return with a triple gin and tonic, to my dismay, that snake Egan had somehow managed to slip out of his chair and, in Grinch-like fashion, had slithered up next to Chun Li, who he was now smoozing with his despicably potent charisma.
I sat back down on the other side of her and just when I was about to regain her attention with a stunningly witty anecdote, Michael leaned across her and “whispered”,
“Hey mate, don’t forget I’ve got your crotch power in my bag if your heat rash is flaring up again”
The whole table seemed to stop for a few seconds and turned to me. My jaw fell open and I turned a crimson red, half from embarrassment, half from rage. I aimed a series of vicious kicks at Michael under the table and, just as I was about to administer my finishing move, a lethal toe-punt to his left testicle, Chun Li turned to me and, no word of a lie, said, “Richard, why are you kicking me?”
“Sorry, Chun Li, I don’t know what came over me”.
“For the last time my name is not Chun Li!”
I sighed in resignation.
“Michael, pass me my dam baby power”
I snatched the baby powder and trudged off dejectedly to the toilets under the glow of Michael’s beaming ‘Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland’ smile.