Shui Bu Ya is a village in the mountains of Hubei Province in the autonomous county of Chang Yang. Chang Yang is known for concrete staircases lacing the mountains as well as gulches enjoyed by adventure tourists rappelling down waterfalls and hiking up the creeks.
Rumor had gotten out that there was a hot spring in a small village in Chang Yang County. This sounded enticing because hot springs conjure up fantastic images of serenity, beauty, and connecting with nature. And apparently this place was a recent find. It has not yet caught the larger public's attention. This conjured up the idea of being untouched, secluded, and pristine.
One of the drawbacks of living away from a major urban center is missing out on a lot of the comforts and luxuries that big cities offer. But the benefits lie in being closer to nature, farmed food, and the open spaces which city dwellers daydream about while battling the rat race.
Having spent so long in China, I have learned that traveling within China is uncomfortable and crowded. That is why it seemed to be such a great thing to live close to natural wonders. I had easy access to them before and after the peak travel seasons. Yet I had learned that most places don’t live up to the hype. I had learned that I'd much rather make use of my free time elsewhere. And as Chinese feel the same way, reports come out showing Chinese tourists heading abroad in numbers, breaking records every year.
I don’t like China less for this. My background in China started at university. While studying in Beijing, This education gave me incite into Chinese society. I could walk past a work site and see the laborers wearing cheap dusty business suits. I didn’t have to question how odd that was. My first thoughts were of the Cultural Revolution. China is a country that turned its world on its head. Between 1967 and until Chairman Mao's Death in 1976, the rich were re-educated by being made to work like to poor. The poor were given the seat of power. Education was expanded to assure that everyone knew that everything good in the country was good because of the communist regime and everything bad was either because of foreign meddling or backwards traditional thinking which they called the "4 olds" (old customs, old, culture, old habits, old ideas). No one talks about this dark period in recent history. No one questions why today's poor labors pay homage to yesteryear's nightmare.
And when I read about the waves of young people leaving the countryside for opportunities in the city, I saw the effect of this on smaller cities and didn't need to question why the streets were full of old people and the extremely unambitious. Less sympathetic expats would refer to the place as a zombie city. You saw, as people walked, that they had nowhere to be. They were in no hurry to get anywhere. They did not have the energy to carry themselves far either physically or in life. They would walk into me as if I were invisible. They were not so much aggressive as they were frustrated and thoughtless. I had no reason to take this personal. Old men would wait to spit until I passed and then spit on the path where I just stepped, in a passive-aggressive manner, which said more about them than about me. Mentioning this to Chinese people I knew I knew where their sympathies were when they dismissively said that I was just being too sensitive.
This type of behavior was in such contrast from the Chinese who I would meet from abroad or big cities returning to Yichang for holidays. They were different in so many ways that I knew that I would never grasp the big picture of what was happening in China. And by that I mean, I tried to refrain from judging a situation that was bigger than what I experienced.
Taking an open country road, I saw mountain roads that bore over a mile through the mountain. Roads balanced on pylons over 10 storeys high. The cost of rapid development brought into question the quality of the work, the actual need of the projects beyond a jobs program, and the social injustice against property owners losing their land to imminent domain. Terms like “nail house,” were never known to me and might have not even existed before I came to China. Not only did I read about the issue, Yichang was one of the places with the highest rate of imminent domain—a testament to the high level of development in the area.
Early autumn in 2013, an old friend called me up. She was back in China after having moved to America with her husband, a dentist from Nebraska. Yawn. She was back in Yichang visiting her mother and she wanted to introduce some friends of hers to me. They wanted to study English. We met and I wound up agreeing. Three of them made the habit of coming to my home on the morning of my day-off to practice English, read simple articles that I would prepare for them, and then we would have lunch together. They were like friends. We went orange picking together. We went to lunches in the countryside. On one of these occasions, we drove out to the countryside where I saw the factories, filthy pollution, and the ugliness which you find in the outskirts of a city.
One of those times they invited to pick strawberries at a farm in the outskirt district of Xiao Ting. But we never found the farm. Instead we found a hell-scape with demolished hillsides, grease covered bulldozers and excavators. Men similarly covered in dirt had a look in their faces as if they have been stunned by a shot to the head. The cigarettes they pulled between their lips offered some feeling to revive them. There would be no way I would eat strawberries from this place. In any case, we never found the strawberry patch but instead hung out at a real estate office park with an artificial lake, a giant yellow rubber duck, and a wooden mansion. A place most likely used for wedding photos. There we walked around as these women in their late-30s took selfies for an hour.
So we were quite familiar with each other when they invited me to take an overnight trip to a small village in Chang Yang where we would enjoy a hot spring. It all sounded interesting. I thought I was benefiting from local knowledge that was kept secret from outsiders so to prevent it from being overrun with tourists. And it was. Silly for me to assume that was a good thing.
Although I do not know the full story of China, what I came to understand was that just like outskirt districts of major cities, the countryside was not immune from the destruction, pollution, and the overcrowding.
Here we stopped of lunch which also served as a selfie opportunity. As they enjoyed the little world they created on their online profiles, I similarly enjoyed taking photos of them.
We arrived to the village which just looked like a strip of simple buildings along the shoulder of the newly paved road. The ground floor of the guest house was used as a storage area for oranges. Besides green tea, this region of China is rich in oranges. After years of living in this part of China, I can now say that I cannot stand oranges as every winter I am gifted a 20 kilogram bag of freshly picked citrus.
Following a dirt trail from the street, we came across a bank above the river where there was a crowd of people. The hot spring was a hole in a concrete wall that poured into a stone pool which then ran off into the river. The rocks in the pool became overgrown with algae as detergents were added to the water from shampoos and soaps from villagers washing themselves in the hot spring water. This hot spring was not a resort or a hidden oasis. Nor was it a pool for recreation. As our guesthouse did not have hot running water, it became evident that this hot spring was probably the main free source of hot running water for the village.
Stone walls holding up the side of a cut hill looked to be in the shape of a swimming pool. It looked to be a project, an incomplete project, where the water would eventually be pumped into a pool providing a hot bath for everyone. Currently though, the bottom of this walled area was mud, littered with individual shampoo packets and other plastic garbage.
We debated about going in or not. I was not so enthusiastic but in a past life I was probably a Labrador retriever. I let them wait for the current bathers to tire and leave and I went for a dip in the cold river below. The whole car ride over, as well as the days leading up to the trip, I was excitedly waiting for this trip. I was not going to let my shock totally stop me.
Eventually I too went in the hot spring. Despite appearances, it was quite pleasant. If they ever finish the construction of the pool and figure out how to keep it clean, it will be quite pleasant. But in the time being it was being used as a public outdoor bath.
We left the riverside to return to the guesthouse where we were staying. We then had dinner at a small restaurant which we found up the road. The village was underwhelming and the restaurants were indistinguishable from one another. We ate, drank a little sorghum liquor, and came up with a brilliant idea or at least an idea which seemed brilliant at the time. We would return to the hot spring after dark. Surely it would be abandoned at night and we could experience the starlit riverside on the cold evening from the comforting cocoon of the sulfur rich waters.
And it was pitch black as there were no signs of civilization on the path leading towards the riverside spring. But soon we say bobbling flashlights coming at us and dripping-haired people in bathrobes making their way past us. Then we noticed the noise coming from that spot. It was even more crowded than before with people sitting around watching, perhaps waiting for their turn. Briefly turning my flashlight onto the pool, I saw that it was full with people standing in the middle. Young men sitting on the muddy edge, nude. Other men still readying themselves by stripping down, just covering themselves with a washcloth. Women were in the small pool too. The noise of everyone in the dark felt stressful. The air felt colder. With no lights except for a few flashlights and no clothes required in such a small space. The situation was surreal. There were young women arriving with male friends to join the party. I saw one woman look hesitant but not sure if it was because she was cold in the night air or scared to death to enter that water with its excess of short shafts ready to sandwich anything nearby. Even if I had my camera, it was too dark to have been able to capture what my eyes could barely see. But the glimpse of that scene suggested to me that the longer that anyone stayed there the worse it must have gotten. One, from our group, stayed. She disrobed to her bathing suit and enjoyed the night waters as the rest of us returned to the guesthouse.
There are hot springs in other places. A two hour drive is a well known resort near Wuhan. While it is crowded during the day, especially during the mid-day and early evening, few people choose to spend the night at its hotel. This means that later in the evening, shortly before it closes at 10 PM, there are few to no people there and serenity can be found as you soak under the stars. It also means that in the morning, after breakfast, when the spring is opened at 9 AM, there is no one there. The mist formed as the hot water hits the cold morning air creating a dreamy landscape that few are there to enjoy. At that time, some of the pools are not available as they have been drained and cleaned. This is not so much an inconvenience as it is rather reassuring that the pools are hygienic as you walk around the garden-like grounds by yourself.
There are similar hot springs in Chong Qing—a short train ride west. There is another in Zhu Hai, not far from Guangzhou or Hong Kong. And still there must be many more all over China. What separated these resorts from Shui Bu Ya, besides the quality of the experience, is price. Shui Bu Ya is free. And it seems to me that this was the main appeal for the women I traveled with. Adventure seekers, following up on a legendary rumor with time constraints preventing them from traveling far. Whatever the reason, they were lured by a free experience nearby. Or just maybe these lonely middle aged women are desperate for blind, unrestrained, anonymous sex with multiple partners who they cannot identify as they let their bodies be taken in multiple ways throughout the night. Eggy smelling warm water washing away jism from their skin thus allowing them to pretend it was all a fabulous dream. Eww. This is the promise of this place. The priceless stuff of legend.