By Matt Cutugno
Zhejiang Province, China
For a westerner in rural China, the surreal is never far away. It might reveal itself down a darkened alleyway of strange shops, or it may appear on a cài dān (menu) full of exotic dishes.
I am in Zhejiang Province, and a recent daytrip was to a unique locale called Jingxing Rock. This place was heralded by my hosts as a popular tourist attraction, but after experiencing what it has to offer, it struck me more as a setting for a Fellini movie.
In fact, it is often used by the Chinese film industry. Its natural beauty is quite evident and its undeveloped countryside with rolling hills and serpentine roads is picturesque and deservedly noteworthy. However, the uniqueness of which I speak lies not in its natural beauty, but rather in the lives of its local people.
Jingxing Rock, which is a kind of amusement park, is staffed by workers who live both in a nearby village and in the park itself. They are poor, common folk, eking out a modest living in a place that is, even by China’s standards, off the beaten path and under-loved.
Jingxing Performer on Stage
Some are tour guides. They greet groups that arrive at Jingxing then escort them up a mountainside trail of stone steps to an elevator, which leads to the top of the rock. The guides dutifully inform tourists of the history of the place, which dates to the late Ming Dynasty.
The rock formations that abound have names, depending on what the formations might resemble - hence there is Elephant Head Peak, Mandarin Duck Playing Water and Eagle Expanding its Wings. Once we reached the top via the slow-moving elevator, our group took a short stroll along a path with panoramic views until we reached the requisite souvenir shop, where trinkets, jade jewelry and refreshments are sold.
Here begins the surreal. There is in front of us a large, somewhat dilapidated stage, non-descript enough until performers enter from up-stage to sing for us. They are transvestites.
There were only a half a dozen in the audience, nonetheless three tattooed performers, clad in layers of colorful, shear fabric, sang lilting tunes in both Mandarin and in their local dialect. I observed that while one of them seemed “merely” to be a cross-dresser, another revealed evidence of hormonal treatment - not a transvestite, but transsexual.
One of my hosts leaned in and asked if I was scandalized by the performers. I smiled, not sharing with her that I worked in a cabaret in New York years ago and the show before me now was tame in comparison. The Chinese in my group watched with alternating annoyance and fascination. There was a poetic sadness about the spectacle as I listened to the tinny music that emanated from hanging speakers and accompanied the singers. When the show was over, several in our group tipped the performers, and they disappeared backstage.
At the Peak
Our guide then led us further around the mountain path to an open field where local vendors sold recently harvested xigua (watermelon) and my friends and I amused ourselves practicing archery nearby with bows and quivers of arrows provided by other employees.
When it was time to leave, that is, descend the mountain, there was another surprise. We were taken to a low, smooth, concrete chute that clung to and dipped along the mountainside. No elevator for us, we would now slide down the mountain to the parking lot where our cars waited.
Each of us donned a kind of coarse apron, which wrapped around our midsection, and each put on a pair of cotton gloves to grasp the edge of the chute. Finally, when we sat down in place to begin our sliding descent, another employee placed a crushed plastic bottle under our seat.
That worker, who was equipped as we were, led the way, and we all slid down the concrete. The descent was not overly steep and the presence of the employee, who set the pace, guaranteed we would not slide too quickly.
Elephant Head Peak
Past trees and rocks and vistas we slid, some of us laughing, some a bit afraid, all of us acknowledging the weirdness of the experience. Then, minutes later, we “landed” in the parking lot.
There, we were greeted by more vendors selling xigua and bottled water. At a small table, we could purchase pictures of our descent, courtesy of a technician seated at a computer, who had access to several digital cameras positioned along the chute.
That is Jingxing Rock. Fellini would have loved it.