Pacific Tides
My name is Thomas Sturm and I'm a programmer, photographer and writer.

Now go outside and look at the sky.

Memories: Ghost Stories

Memories... is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

I'd been trying to go to Hangzhou not too far from Shanghai for several years, but had always been deflected by inconvenient bus or train connections. In the summer of 1993 I finally managed to make it there and had more than the usual amount of trouble finding accommodation. A small reference in a guide book pointed to a guest house outside of town and I finally found a bike rickshaw driver who was willing to pedal me out there - which is where the memories are getting intense...

The old man is pedaling hard to get the rickshaw across a steep hill. I can see the bulging muscles in his legs, but also his smiling face as he turns around as he reaches the top, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth bobbing up and down.

"This is tea!" - he points at the deep green fields all around us, his Chinese with a thick local accent barely understandable. And indeed, we are surrounded by tea plantations. Row after row of tea plants cover the steep hillsides and valleys all around us.

The guest house is another hill further down the road and on the final climb we enter a deep forest, a mixture of bamboo groves and thick-leaved trees. I thank the driver profusely since only now I know how far it had really been. He laughs, takes the money and bikes back down the hill, disappearing from view in seconds.

The guest house consists of several dark, squat buildings, each in a small clearing of the forest. The walls are overgrown with ivy and green patches of mold cover the white plaster. It's been raining daily and the air is humid, heavy and full with the sounds of cicadas and other insects.

It's easy to get a room - I'm pretty sure the guest house is not licensed to host foreigners, but it is probably a hotel for party officials and the local police has better things to do than to check the books. It's also very empty. Later in the dining room I meet two more backpackers that made it here, Craig from the UK and J├╝rgen from Germany. That's it. No Chinese guests at all as far as I can tell.

Dinner was not bad and the three of us spend a long evening in the dining room and later in the lobby talking about our respective trips through the country. As darkness falls, it becomes obvious how remote this place is. There are no lights beyond the small parking lot in front of the lobby. The world ends abruptly at a wall of bamboo swaying in the wind, leaves rustling, the stalks knocking against each other with gentle, oddly melodic sounds.

I finally go back to my room and turn on the TV which surprises me with functioning controls and several channels to choose from. While I prepare for bed I flip randomly through the channels and suddenly see a title sequence that is strangely familiar. It's the beginning of "A Chinese Ghost Story" - I'd seen the movie just the year before at a cinema in Munich during a foreign film festival.

For the next ninety minutes I'm enchanted by this movie - I'd liked it in Munich, but to see it here, with the sounds of the wind and rain in the trees outside of my room, in a dark, remote forest in the middle of China... it takes on a whole new dimension.

After the movie I put on my shoes one more time and go out in front of the guest house. I don't walk far, just to the edge of the light. It's after midnight and the night is very dark. Heavy drops fall from the leaves as the wind shifts the bamboo stalks.

Deep in the forest, I can hear the tree spirit move.

© 1998 - 2024 Thomas Sturm