Lost in the Heibi Province Mountains

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But now I am alone, so I force a private chuckle and tell myself it really can't be far to another village, no matter where I'm actually headed. After all, this is China. At 9,640,821 square miles it is only slightly larger than the USA with our 9,569,901 million, but over four times as populated. So there must be a town of some size somewhere nearby.

Starting off again I choose the middle of three equally unlikely looking roads. It twists around and down and up and around again. With no road signs, it is impossible to anticipate the outcome. It doesn't really matter, though, I tell myself again and again. I'm not on any particular deadline, and I need only to head roughly west, toward the setting sun. 

With that thought I settle into a not unpleasant resignation. The scenery is wild and serene and the tension knotting in my stomach dissipates. I chose Liajang because it was a fairly large town with a few hotel choices, according to my Lonely Planet guide, but any town would do. 

The joy of exploration wanes with the fading daylight, the absence of any subsequent road signs, a gas station, or a town. When the sun sets I can no longer orient myself and continue to choose random at forks in the road. Like the first, they follow the contours of the mountains to take me on a tour of all the directions of the compass. By the time darkness falls I had passed only the tiniest of villages. The peasants are so weary they don't even look up at the sound of my engine as they perform their end-of-day tasks. Their huts are constructed from mud bricks. The windows are covered with oiled paper. There must be power lines because I can see the flicker of television screens here and there, but apparently they have no plumbing, for their water is fetched from who knows where in buckets hung from sticks carried across the shoulders of children and old women, and their grain seems to be sorted and ground by hand at concrete mortars, and their small gardens are protected from the animals by mud-brick walls.

Ten kilometers of empty road passes between the village where the piglets ran into the road and then road narrows and deteriorates into dirt and gravel. The dark shapes of trees hover above on either side. Long ago Kublai Khan had traveled through China and was dismayed at the unbroken monotony of the roadways, so he ordered trees planted on every roadside to give solace to travelers.

The trees do not give me solace as my headlight shines on one after another after another white painted tree trunk, giving me the impression that it is they which move past me, and that I am sitting still like an actor on a movie set, a wind machine blowing in my face. All I can think is that the road is going to dead end and I'm going to have to go backwards into the mountains where I know there is no town and no gas station, and I will have to intrude rudely into a village.

What finally does give me solace is the sudden appearance of two gas pumps under a brightly-lit shelter. Beyond it stands a building strung with white lights that I hope, but doubt, is a hotel. That would just be too lucky. 

I pull up to the pumps and a woman steps out from the doorway of the attached shack, having heard the sound of an engine, a customer. She hushes the two small children peeking out behind her and walks toward me. I am so cold and so relieved that her movements seem to be in slow motion. Her outfit is comical and garishly illuminated under the fluorescent lights - a shapeless lime green dress sprinkled with large white polka dots and opaque knee-highs that have left a sharp dent halfway up her short fat calves, accessorized by bright pink rubber pool sandals.

She is, however, not unnerved, even friendly, and decodes my rough Mandarin while helping me pump gas into the tank, which is almost empty. She must talk with truckers all day, with accents from Shanghai to Mongolia. 

Yes, she nods, smiling. The lit building is indeed a hotel — her luguan, she says, pointing to her chest. I can stay there, and it will cost twenty yuan.

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