chapter 2, a medicinal journey thru china

july 28, 2007

xi'an, china

i love oysters. always have. half a dozen, cold on the half shell, with a tan beer and fresh, warm bread. and butter. a perfect combination. i remember a trendy blues club on the north side of chicago, ratso's. named, no doubt after dustin hoffman's "midnight cowboy" lame hustler. notice i said "north side", not the black south side, where the blues came up from mississippi and new orleans to the big city and got electric, but on trendy lincoln avenue, pre-steppenwolf, circa 1972. anyway, ratso's had the best oysters, and even when i was broke on a hundred dollars a week dancing and sweating my ass off, i made it to ratso's twice a year to indulge myself on these heavenly oysters. maybe spend an hour and a half on 1 beer and six oysters. and of course the warm bread. and butter.

which absolutely doesn't explain how i came to have a full dozen at a little mexican fish taco joint in highland park, just east of downtown LA, about 2 weeks before i left on this trip. notice i said "dozen". i'd never had so many at 1 sitting, always settling for the six, mostly out of -- frugality. no problem. as i said, i was always completely satisfied with the half order, so who knows what came over me that fateful monday in highland park, two weeks before departing for the great behemoth of the east, china.

because you see, by late afternoon, i was already experiencing a sharp pain at the base of my right calf, and by evening the pain had gravitated down my leg to attack the swollen metatarsal joint in my right foot, the exact site of a motorcycle injury from back when i was young and reckless and twenty one. the pain was sharp and specific; i wasn't imagining it (i don't think), but being accused yet again of being a chronic woody allen-type hypochondriac by my lovely wife, i just grinned and bore it - not only that first night, but also the next five. the thing was, the pain was different every night. it would move around. from joint to joint. from the front of my leg to the back. it'd go away by morning and reappear by night time, each night in a different spot.

then i thought - gout. too many oysters. a change of the half dozen routine. my father had it, the disease of the rich (not that he was). too much uric acid. attacked the joints. now i had it. i went on the internet and sure enough, gout often attacked the weakest joint in the body, often the big toe. gout it was. but... what about the floating pains moving around my lower right leg? reminded me of the "floating" pains i had back in '89 before i was diagnosed with hodgkin's, cancer of the lymphatic system. but i insisted: it would go away on its own; don't go see yet another doctor.

so on saturday, a week before the big east adventure, i went to rancho cucamonga, to the great poo's wedding. i got through the ceremony, and then, lo and behold, my whole right leg was swollen and hot as hell. i drove home before the reception, called my USC on-call doctor, who sent me straight to the local emergency room to check for an imminent blood clot. a few hours later, an ultra sound test said: negative. it was "cellulitis", an unusual inflammation of the soft tissue. "take 2 anti-biotics and see your doctor on monday." i didn't. take the anti-biotics. the heat disappeared. monday i went to see my PCP (primary care physician i.e. doctor). he said, "no cellulitis, it's lymphedema, an idiosympatic ('stupid', no reason for the symptoms) collection of lymph in the soft tissue. no treatment or cure known. wear a compression sock." for the rest of my life. "what about my trip to china? will extreme heat or activity worsen it?" "no problem," said dr. j, "have a good trip. wear that sock. especially on the plane!"

so i did. and da wife and i arrive 18 hours later in big bad beijing. you got the scoop on my 1st impressions in chapter 1. but hey, i was wrong. there are plenty of friendly, smiling people all over beijing and northeast china. and here they are, helping these 2 helpless, non chinese-speaking gringos at every turn: at the railway stations, youth hostels (budget hotels), the internet shops, restaurants, and in the pouring rain of xi'an. but wait -- before we get to xi'an, capital of ancient feudal china and site of the splendiferous terra cotta warriors, let's get back to the swollen leg and the great wall outside of beijing. the great wall that da wife trekked for 8 kilometers, 7 of which i avoided, not only because of the now well-established bad hip, but now also because of the swollen leg and ankle. and now? what's this? in the middle of a stone-handed, hard-core chinese massage, my left arm and fingers start tingling - like blinking red chinese lanterns. and then my fingers go numb. isn't this the sure sign of an imminent heart attack? hell! what to do? go to a hospital in beijing? call the on-call USC doctor in LA at 3 am? no, that would be weak. giving into my woody allen kvetching, self-indulgent side. no, better to carry on. get on that all night hard sleeper to shanxi province. see the notorious ancient buddhist yungang caves in datong. get myself "right" (cool hand luke). if it was my time for dyin', i was ready.

but it wasn't. my ankles swelled. my left arm tingled. my fingers were numb. but the caves were cool. 30 foot high sandstone-carved buddhas. like those wiped out by the taliban in afghanistan. awesome in scale and beauty. a treasure. i bought a 3 yuan (50 cent) imitation green jade buddha for protection. onward! to pingyao. to the immaculately-preserved and in tact, walled city of ancient china, circa 1700. banks, temples, and family-owned homes with endless green concrete courtyards. pagoda dragon roofs. red lanterns lit at night like a zhang yimou movie. soft white-orange lights on the city walls' watch towers. spectacular.

we're in ancient china. qin dynasty, han dynasty. tang dynasty (the height of chinese culture & world influence, 600-800 AD). ming dynasty. qing dynasty. the last emperor (bertolucci). the queen dowager dies and the boy emperor vacates the last throne of china. the republic begins in 1912. mao and chang kaishek fight it out for years until the japanese attack in the 30s. chang kaishek vacates to li shan mountain, former retreat and hot springs of the emperor and his most beautiful and favored concubine, lady yang.

chang kaishek stupidly refuses mao's offer to join him against the japanese in 1936 and his own generals put him under house arrest. the world is shocked and the chinese people lose their love and trust in chang. the japanese lose world war 2, mao becomes the new deified comrade-emperor in 1949, and the rest is the history of the 20th and 21st century!

you see lu wa and fu xi (pronounced "foo-she"), the great dragon-couple gods of chinese mythology, created man and woman out of clay in the beginning. you know, "the beginning", like adam and eve. lu wah and fu xi. and my ankles are really swollen in pingyao, so i order a chinese medicinal diagnosis. and the daughter of the most famous, but now deceased, acupuncturist and doctor in pingyao comes to my room, takes my blood pressure (165/98!), and tells me to go to the local hospital the next day for a CT scan of my brain! HUA! (chinese expression for "merde!" or "jesus h. christ!"). a cat scan of my brain in pingyao? da wife says, "do it!" so i have piju, the hotel owner, write out directions in chinese for me to be taken to the local hospital by taxi, delivered to the clinic, and given a cat scan of my brain. 200 yuan. i'm game. but then the lovely acupuncturist's husband, also a doctor, appears out of thin air, puts me back in my room, feels my pulses, listens to my heart, and reverses the diagnosis. no CT scan. my heart and brain are fine. too much fluid in the ankles. lymphedema. this i know. but - acupuncture will help. and one more thing - less sex. i'm pushing 60. please, less sex. good for health.

i lie back down and he takes out his arsenal of needles. three in the top of my head. three in my left arm. two in my right leg. two in my right leg. he gives his lovely wife some instructions in chinese (neither speaks any english), and he smiles and leaves the room. relax, she indicates. concentrate on my breathing. half an hour. i relax. she twists the needles. ouch! i relax some more and she takes them out. we go out for some spicy eggplant and sautéed garlic spinach and fungus, and we both go to sleep in our charming dungeon of a room. i wake up the next day, and............ the swelling in the right leg is half the size. my left arm still tingles and my fingers are still numb, but i'm still ticking and no CT scan. good news. we go about our day independently. da wife bicycles for hours and i walk thru temples and courtyard for hours. we have another hard sleeper night train to xi'an at 7pm that evening. at 5, the smiling doctor couple reappear at my door and give me another round. he, the needles, she the dance-like massage: eyes closed. clapping, slapping rhythm. both are deeply connected to my body and its needs. we taxi to the train station, sleep amongst the snoring chinese and trendy euro-travelers and wake up at 7 am - in xi'an.

the swelling in my right leg and ankle is completely gone! the acupuncture and massage have worked. doctors j, k, and h, all of learned western allopathic medicine, have said "no treatment, wear a compression sock." for the rest of my life. and now.... in charming ancient walled-city of pingyao... i've been temporarily (?) treated... and cured. still tingling and numb in the left arm, hand, and fingers, but doctor j, by e-mail from LA, sez: "don't worry. come see me when you get home. enjoy your trip." so.... i do.

we go to see the terra cotta warriors. "eighth wonder of the world." see thousands of anthropological-correctly restored infantrymen, archers, horses, chariots, generals, officers, all with unique facial expressions. made of clay. fired in an ancient kiln. laid underground by the first qin (pronounced "shin") emperor, the fierce dude who united the 7 separate states in 221 BC into the first unified china. the fierce dude who began the great wall to keep out the also-fierce mongolian hordes to the north and west. the 13 year old boy-emperor who ruled for 37 years and changed the history of china and the world. made xi'an into a world power. beginning and end of the "silk road". silk, jade, and spices to turkey, europe, and the west. gold and silver to kabul and the east. but why the thousands of warriors?

simple. emperor qin and the taoists of pre-christian china believed in extending life. but not only long human life. but also after life. and so the powerful buried themselves in underground mausoleums. just like the egyptians and the incas of peru. with their concubines. and slaves (buried alive). and ornaments. and wealth. and terra cotta warriors to protect them in the next life. thousands of underground warriors and generals and officers and weapons and horses - for protection. unknown to the modern world for over 2000 years - until a local xi'an farmer discovered some terra cotta shards in 1974. now a famous man, his discovery initiated one of the great tourist industries in the world. local xi'an capitalists making and baking new terra cotta warriors to be exhibited and sold around the planet. welcome to china, 2007.

me? today, july 28th? my right leg and both ankles are still normal sized. my left arm, hand, and fingers still tingle away like red chinese lanterns in the moonlight. last night in xi'an we went to the big wild big goose pagoda to see the biggest water show in town. colored fountains cascading and spouting for free - for the people. we get there at 8:30 for the 9 pm show. at 8:31 sharp, the wind starts whipping around at 30 mph and the 10,000 chinese people in the giant square all start simultaneously running for cover - in every direction. north. south. east. and west. umbrellas out, we run too. to no avail. we get soaked. pants, shirts, bags. the water is up to our ankles. we're splashing about, looking for a taxi. none to be found. just like new york in the rain. but a few million people more. no taxi. we splash on. "we're walkin' here! i mean, we're walkin' here!" just like ratso, the lame hustler in "midnight cowboy". splashing through brightly-lit, modern-day, mucho-drenched xi'an. we're on a wild goose chase through ancient china. me, with the skinny ankles and the tingling fingers, da wife with the indonesian pluck and courage: "you're not sugar or salt; the rain won't melt you."

we're standing helplessly in the street, scores of occupied taxis passing us by, more scores of chinese hailing cabs right next to us. no chance. the water in the streets is like the beach shores in california. waves of water swelling from the streets over the sidewalks into the storefronts. we're soaked. we finally grab a cab. he sloshes through the flooding streets, leaving a wake like a catamaran speed boat. he stops. he can't go forward. he makes a u-turn. we're stuck in traffic. not moving one way or the other. he tells us to get out and walk. we're right near our hotel. we do. but we're not. near our hotel. we're completely turned around and lost. two pretty chinese teenagers see us. they can see the obvious. two helpless gringos. they take pity on us. after half an hour more, they find us a tri-shaw (motorcycle with two rear seats) with a plastic roof. the driver's a little nuts; he wants 20 yuan instead of 5, but it's his game, his trishaw. we get in and start sloshing again. he's laughing like a madman at every swell we drive through. i start laughing with him. loudly. "we're drivin' here. out of our way!" horns are blaring at us. we're laughing like the lame chinese and american hustlers we are. "hahahahahaha"...................... all the way to the 8th chinese communist regiment dormitory where we're staying, now another youth hostel for international backpackers, oyster-eating college professors on a budget, and plucky indonesian princesses.....

love from wet, ancient xi'an,

still ticking,

wangtrulesxi (pronounced "wong-trool-she")