Hairy crabs, the hill of pain and the boulevard of a thousand massage touts

Imagethief went for a hike with some good friends on Sunday. Hiking is one of the things that I was sorry to give up when I moved to Shanghai, and that I’ve been most eager to rediscover upon my return. In Shanghai you can drive for days through the industrial sprawl of the Yangzi delta before you find anything that looks remotely appealing for a stroll. Unless you like walking through cement plants, paint factories and valve workshops.

This isn’t a joke. I recently went with my Shanghai colleagues to Jiangsu’s fabled Yangcheng Lake, home of the world’s most legendary hairy crabs. I was picturing someplace out of a Chinese fantasy. Limpid waters. Verdant banks shaded by drooping willow trees. Graceful pavilions on which maidens in silk gowns would pluck pipas for my pleasure (it’s not as dirty as it sounds) while I feasted on plump crab hoisted fresh from pure spring-fed pools.

Wrong. Yangcheng lake is a suspiciously turbid expanse of water with concrete and rapple banks and ringed by cement plants, paint factories and valve workshops. It’s connected to a labyrinth of local canals that look like they supply the drinking water to Mogadishu. I’d be wary of eating of anything pulled from Yangcheng’s dubious depths, let alone a creature that lives in the heavy-metal sludge and eats the carrion of whatever couldn’t survive in the lake, died and sank to the bottom.

So much for the hairy crabs. They’re overrated anyway. It turns out the Chinese idea of what constitutes damn good crab is something you can easily suck the innards out of. I grew up in San Francisco, eating fat Dungeness crabs. We discarded the innards so we could get to the meat. Better yet, we had the fishmonger discard the innards so we didn’t need to be reminded they ever existed. Nothing but meat and a hollow space in the middle that, as far as you know, was always full of fresh lemon slices. That’s good crab.

A hairy crab has no meat. It’s all innards. And hair. Hence the bliss of my Chinese colleagues, who gleefully explained to me every organ they were eating. Except when the girl sitting next to me got to the testes of a male crab. “You don’t want to know what this is,” she gracefully suggested. Doing my best to ignore the gusto with which crab ‘nads were being consumed at my elbow, I was reduced to trying to squeeze miniscule fragments of meat out of legs the size of toothpick envelopes. You could starve to death doing this.

But this has nothing to do with hiking. Or massage touts.

Shanghai is all industrial wasteland and toxic lakes infested with carrion-eating vermin that somehow got rebranded as a delicacy, probably during one of the many famines. But in Beijing you only need an hour on clear roads and you’re back in the dongbei in all its rural, dustbowl splendor. This is fine for me because, as it happens, I like rural dustbowl splendor. There is something about Northeast China that evokes loneliness, resilience and endurance honed in an endless arid wasteland. The ghost of hard times still lingers over these lands.

Plus there are mountains. We climbed into the remote hills somewhere north of Beijing where there are desolate stretches of unrestored Wall traversing peaks with panoramic views stretching from Beijing’s smoky basin to the Kangxi grasslands. I am told this is where the Mongols fed and watered their horses before riding through the pass at Badaling (where the famous touristy section of wall is) to assault the capital.

I nearly didn’t manage the climb. I run three times a week when I’m being good and can go on flat ground more or less indefinitely. But hill-climbing fitness is different, and I was contemplating the pros and cons of a good vomit within about twenty minutes of setting off. It didn’t help that my hiking companion leaped up the mountain like a goat on speed. To add insult to injury, he smoked his way up and down. The road to true fitness apparently leads through Marlboro country.

Outside of the embrace of Beijing’s heat island it was also cold enough to freeze the water in our bottles. A ripping wind peeled the skin from our lips and reminded us all why living in a porous, brick hut in the dongbei is not, perhaps, an ideal lifestyle. And why this is the land that gave birth to the kang, a traditional bed warmed by the exhaust of a fire.

But the worst penance of the trip came the next day. Sometime during the night someone secretly replaced the fine thigh muscles I normally use with bags of broken glass soaked in vinegar and cat urine. Or that’s what it felt like when I tried to walk. This is what happens when you let moving blow up your workout schedule for a month and them climb a mountain with smoking gazelle-man. I spent the next forty-eight hours doing an extremely good impression of an eighty year old man with crippling arthritis. I also experimented with every variation of the standing up and sitting down groans.

On Monday evening I worked a bit late. Knowing that by the time I got home it would be so late that I would blow off the gym yet again, I decided to walk from my office in Oriental Plaza back to my apartment at China Central Place. I figured this would give me some exercise while also enabling me work some of the devastating soreness out of my legs.

I have no idea why we always think the solution to exercise pain is more exercise. This is total BS and should be resisted. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the walk. This was unexpected, because it was an hour and fifteen minute slog down Chang’an Jie and Jianguomen, past the world’s champion assortment of dour, institutional looking buildings and vaguely seedy hotels. I put it down to the odd euphoria that returning to Beijing has generated in me. This could be because I am deeply affectionate for this sprawling, funky city. Or it could be some kind of toxicological effect from all the pollutants in the air. Either way, it’s a good feeling and I’m nursing it.

In addition to enabling me to survey at leisure what an architectural wasteland Beijing’s central artery has turned into (Wanda Plaza, anyone?), it gave me a chance to sample some of the city’s finest massage pitches. By which I mean prostitution pitches. You can always tell when you cross from an office’s or institutional building’s frontage to one of the hotels because you immediately get hit with, “Hello? Massage? Girl?” And, to up the ante, “Pretty girl?”

In the course of my walk I got it from singles, tag-team pairs, men and women. But the all time winner was a girl who glided past me on one of those preposterous, little folding bicycles with wheels the size of salad plates. She had long, black hair and was painted unnaturally pail, so her face leaped out in the darkness. She had false eyelashes so big it looked like she could have propelled herself along by flapping them.

“Helloooo,” she cooed in a singsong as she carved out graceful turns in front of me. “Massage?” And then, “Hellooooo! I love you!” And then, with a final flap of those absurd, batwing eyelashes, “Hellooooo! Sex?”

On the bicycle? I wondered. But it was too late to ask. She had given up on me and was pedaling off down the sidewalk. While I was still writing down her pitch in my notebook a rough looking man in a leather jacket came up to me and said, “Hey, massage?”

It really is great to be back in Beijing.

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