“With your feet on the air
And your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head’ll collapse
If there’s nothing in it
And then you’ll ask yourselfWhere is my mind?
— The Pixies, “Where Is My Mind?”
There’s a stunningly fine line between a “misunderstanding” and an “incident.” And the best time to try to suss out the relative lexical semantics associated with those two words is definitely NOT while you’re on a 747 that has yet to reach cruising altitude and is headed at 600 miles per hour out over the Pacific Ocean.
Unfortunately, I was right then in no condition to be pondering the subtle nuances of etymology. One second, there was relative calm. The next second, every head on the plane was turning fast toward the distant recesses of the coach section, as five flight attendants made their post haste way to seat 58C. Guess who was sitting in seat 58C?
Admittedly, I was not exactly in a jovial mood to begin with, though it was not my dour disposition that caused the flight crew to descend upon me. It was the action of a well-dressed middle-aged Oriental gentleman in seat 57A. Almost as soon as my posterior was planted, I had started to doze off (read: pass out with my tongue lolling out of my head) but, before achieving total blissful insentience, I was jerked back into consciousness by an agitated, albeit understated, conversation by my seatmates, a young married couple. “I thought this was a non-smoking flight,” said the women to her husband. “It is. Maybe we should call the stewardess,” the husband responded to his spouse. With great effort, I cracked one eye open and saw the aforementioned gentleman in seat 57A smoking a cigarette. It was here that my foul mood asserted itself. “Dude, there’s no smoking allowed,” I snarled. His reaction, while holding his cigarette in between his index and middle fingers, was to draw deeply, turn around, look straight at me, and blow two full lungs of smoke directly into my face. It was total instinct when my hand shot out to grab the cigarette from the man’s mouth. It was surely the result of fatigue associated with an arduous six-week trip that reached something of a climatic anti-climax with an ill-advised all-nighter that ended a mere hour before take-off that caused my aim to be askew. Basically, I overshot my target. Not by much, mind you, but enough that, in something of a physical manifestation of a Freudian slip, instead of snatching a smoldering cancer stick with my digits, two knuckles made solid contact with the schmuck’s lips.
The Oriental gentleman did not react calmly. Verily, he went ballistic, screaming maniacally in Chinese, blood seeping from his mouth, trying to climb over the back of his seat to have at me.
It was borderline anarchy. And, when it seemed things couldn’t get any more chaotic, all of a sudden, smoke started filling the cabin. Turns out the irate Oriental gentleman’s cigarette, which had been lost in the shuffle, had starting burning a hole in seat 57A.
My photographer buddy Norb and I had been sent by Backpacker magazine to the most remote corner of China’s Yunnan Province, to cover the first commercial rafting descent of the class-39 Yangtze River through 17-mile-long, 11,000-foot-deep Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We had no intention whatsoever to so much as stick a toe into the Yangtze through Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We, rather, planned to hike above the river, where we could more easily witness the inevitable carnage.
About two seconds before we were scheduled to leave for the People’s Republic, those malcontents in Tibet who have lived for 50 years under Beijing’s unconscionable repression decided now would be a good a time to revolt. Why they couldn’t have waited another month, who can say? But, as a result of their actions, all of Tibet, and those parts of China proper that bordered Tibet, were pretty much closed to foreign visitation while the People’s Liberation Army went about liberating a whole bunch of Tibetans of their mortality. Well, guess where Tiger’s Leaping Gorge is? Not to worry, we were told by the proprietors of Sobek, the company that was charging customers something like $20,000 apiece to risk life and limb in Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. They would simply add our names to their special-exception permit list, and all would be well.
So, we arrived in Hong Kong, where we had a two-day layover before our flight to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, with a sense of ease that ought to have, right off the bat, worried us.
The plan was to hook up with the Sobek people Dali, a lovely little mountain town eight hours by bus from Kunming. Sobek co-founders Richard Bangs and John Yost had some bad news for us: They had forgotten to include our names on the permit — meaning, because Tiger’s Leaping Gorge was, as I indicated earlier, closed to all non-special-permitted foreign visitation, we would be legally prohibited from venturing there to cover the impending rafting catastrophe. The liaison to the Chinese Sports Ministry said, maybe, we would be able to get some sort of special dispensation if we took a hand-written note from him to the Public Security Bureau — the dreaded PSB — in Lijiang, the next sizeable town up the road. While understanding that the scribble he had jotted down might very well have been an admonition to the Lijiang cops to shoot us on sight, we boarded yet another bus for half a day to Lijiang, where the local gendarmerie handed us a typed note in English stating, unambiguously, if we tried to go to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge, we would be arrested, jailed and “eventually” deported.
Were it not for hefty quantities of fortifying beverages, that typed note would likely have signaled an ignominious defeat. But Norb and I have always been far too stupid to face failure without doing something asinine to make that failure even more undignified. We opted after numerous adult beverages to defy the PSB. Somehow, some way, we were going to make it the last 60 miles to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We had two days before Sobek was scheduled to run the Yangtze.
We hatched a scheme that was deceptively moronic. We figured, after our conversation with the PSB, they would surely be on the lookout for us, which would be pretty easy, since there was only one road from Lijiang to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. Ergo: It would not take much in the way of law-enforcement acumen to catch us in the act. So we opted, rather than walk through the middle of town early in the a.m., to sneak through the back streets to hook up with the road we needed to be on. Thing is, this was long enough ago that round eyes were decidedly unusual in small-town China. For the most part, as we slinked our way along muddy alleys as wide as my desk, people eyeballed us warily and silently from the shadows. Then, we passed in front of a goddamned elementary school, which literally disgorged before our very eyes. Every one of the 6,000 students had evidently, the very day before, learned two, and two only, words of English: “Hello” and “Good-bye.” Not that it mattered to Norb and I at that moment, but these 6,000 screaming schoolchildren displayed no discernible pattern whatsoever in the use of their limited English vocabulary. A third yelled “hello” at the top of their little lungs the entire time we passed by, while a third yelled “good-bye,” while the remaining third used both terms randomly, like they were trying to work out the lyrics to the old Beatles song. In short, our attempts at subterfuge were counterproductive.
Then, though, a miracle happened: Through no fault of our own, our dumbass selves were suddenly on the road to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. Then, another miracle happened: We managed to hitch a ride in the back of a dump truck all the way to the village of Dachu — walking distance from our destination. Next morning, we hired a rickety boat to take us across the frighteningly roiling Yangtze to the downriver gateway to Tigers Leaping Gorge!
An hour later, up walks from the opposite direction, of all perplexing and disheartening things, the entire Sobek crew.
“Uh, aren’t you folks supposed to be rafting this section?” we asked.
“We decided it was too dangerous,” was the almost-indifferent response. With that, they were off. Off too was the story we had traveled 12 time zones to cover. For the next four days, we did not know what would befall us when we emerged on the upper end of Tiger’s Leaping Gorge, whether there would be a troop of PSB agents standing there ready to arrest us. And we did not know what would become of our story once the editors at Backpacker learned that the Sobek people had sanely pussied out at the very last possible minute. Those were not things we could control, so we pressed on, took pictures and, on those few instances when they did not sprint away from us screaming, chatted with locals. Lack of Sobek carnage notwithstanding, it was an astounding hike through one of the deepest canyons on the planet.
Two miles from civilization, we walked right through the middle of (and I am not making this up) a Chinese prison chain gang, dressed in ripped-up striped suits, breaking rocks with sledgehammers, just like in the movies. This was not a happy-looking lot, and the thought that, maybe in a few hours, we would be joining them in their labors almost made us piss our pants. But, when we arrived in the first town large enough to have bus service, not a single person paid the slightest attention to our presence.
We were free.
And that was it. We returned to Hong Kong for one last night before this demanding adventure was over and done with. What could possibly go wrong?
Funny you should ask …
We arrived in Hong Kong during the earliest hours of October 19, 1987, otherwise known in fiscal circles as “Black Monday,” the worst single day in the history of stock exchanges. By lunch time, Hong Kong, a place that survives off the electronic shuffling of dollars, pounds sterling, francs and yen the way most societies survive off food, water, shelter and oxygen, was in utter turmoil, and, by the time the closing bell rung, the entire colony was shaken to its core, because, in one short business day, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the third-largest in the world in terms of actual capitalization, had lost almost 50 percent of its value. By the next day, when the shockwaves of Black Monday rippled their way to New York, the Dow Jones would suffer its biggest one-day loss ever.
Even as people were running down Salisbury and Nathan roads, bumping into buildings and wailing in abject despair, Norb and I, being insulated from the vagaries of the stock market via our perpetual destitution, opted to deal with this international crisis-in-the-making by venturing forth into the Kowloon evening. Our destination was Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, an Aussie-owned bar so popular with ex-pats and tourists that, if you did not arrive on the scene by happy hour, your chances of getting a seat were nil, and if you did not have a seat, there was nothing to do save stand there in the middle of walkways the wait staff traversed in their noble quest to slake thirsts.
We thought we were ahead of the crowd curve, but, given the fact that half the inhabitants of Hong Kong were at that very moment liquidly lamenting their newfound residency in the poor house, Norb and I arrived at Ned Kelly’s too late to get seats. The only spot I could find to even stand was next to a 10-top horseshoe-shaped booth — at that moment completely filled with a group of very loud, young and drunk Aussies. The 10-top was the closest table to the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. Every time a waitperson passed through those doors, I had to suck in my stomach and hold my breath, lest I get knocked over. At one point, my attention wandered ever so slightly, just as a waitress from, of all places, Evergreen, Colorado, exploded through those swinging doors holding high above her head a well-laden tray. I leaned back as far as I could, as fast as I could, and, as she passed, my center of gravity was no longer centered and, as a result, the smallest part of my ass made the slightest contact with the edge of that 10-top table and, as it did so, I could hear behind me 10 tall glasses of beer topple over in unison, like bowling pins.
The rowdy Aussies saw what had happened and were good-natured about it. Still, they were all soaked from the waist down, so they left to change into duds a bit drier. Bad as I felt, when the Aussies left, Norb and I found ourselves with ample seating. Shortly after we took advantage of the situation, a young Canadian, who was living and working in Hong Kong, asked if he could join us. He said he was meeting someone, an Englishman, who arrived in short order. The two men chatted conspiratorially and, under the table, a wad of folded bills was passed from the Canuck, who received in turn a small foil-wrapped packet from the Limey. Almost immediately, the Canuck asked if Norb and I would be interested in joining him back at his flat. “I’ve got something here that you might enjoy,” he said, without indicating exactly what that “something” might be. We said sure, and, minutes later, we were in a 40th-story abode about the size of my car, which the Canadian shared with one of his countrymen and two locals.
The Canadian had purchased from the Englishman back at Ned Kelly’s several grams of opiated Kashgari hash, which was debilitatingly potent. After one hit, Norb and I found ourselves fused to the couch, completely unable to so much as twitch, for the rest of the night.
It would have been one thing if that were essentially this end of the story. But, well — shit! — the entire time we were parked comatose upon the Canadian’s couch, one of his roommates, a young yuppie-type of Chinese heritage, had been … trying … to … commit suicide. He had lost his entire family’s multi-generation wealth during the Black Monday meltdown and wasn’t handling the situation in any way that, say, Thoreau would have sanctioned.
He had arrived shortly post-smoke, and, after exchanging pleasantries with the Canadian, he calmly placed his hat, briefcase and umbrella aside, screeched at the top of his lungs and dashed full speed to the closest window, which he impacted with the top of his noggin. The window, fortunately, was closed tight. Before anyone could react, or, in the case of Norb and I, not react, he had the window open and one leg was dangling 40 stories above the street. This man was not bullshitting; he was going out that window. In one of the more heroic acts I have ever witnessed, the Canadian, who was surely as stoned as were Norb and I, was up and pulling his disconsolate roommate back into the land of the living. This suicidal savior dance proceeded apace every 15 minutes until the figurative roosters began waking a Hong Kong that, in economic terms, was in utter ruins, and thus pretty much remained until China reclaimed its territory a decade later.
There came a point when Norb and I had to move. With Herculean effort, we wobbled back to our hovel, retrieved our filthy piles of gear, hailed a taxi and made it to the airport by the skin of our teeth. We parted ways, Norb headed for Sea-Tac by way of Tokyo, me headed toward Stapleton by way of San Francisco.
And so I found myself in seat number 58C, with a gaggle of flight attendants huddled around me. The irate Chinese guy had been moved up toward the front of the plane and the smoking seat had been doused with hot coffee.
One of the flight attendants leaned over my seat and asked: “You think we can make it all the way to San Francisco without further incident,” she drawled.
“I thought of it more as a simple misunderstanding,” I responded.
With that, I crashed hard, and, when I awoke, we were on final approach to economic chaos that had no bearing whatsoever on my humble little life.