We rise early. We head to Shanghai Hong Qia Train Station, rubbing the sleep from our eyes. We board the train to Wuhan, amongst the many passengers toting the Expo’s Gumby twin mascot toy Haibo to bestow upon their loved ones.
We are happy to be in cushy seats on a superspeed air-conditioned transport while the cities we pass by slug through 43° Celsius heat. Dan, Jeremy and I are struck by the passing scenery: multi-eaved cemetery stones, terraced valleys and mountains, crowded villages, winding rivers and farmed plots, rivers with men bathing their water buffalos, lily pads and dirt paths and nuclear plants. We order the one meal option available: Egg and Laval (?) soup with tea eggs, boiled soy nuts and rice. We continue passing red dirt and rice paddies, old factory sites. A demolition plot with hanging laundry reveals a frontier eked out between modern construction and the lives that have been lived and farmed in these valleys for ages. Abandoned buildings and lush manicured hills. People working by hand, tooth and nail in the distance. Surely it is the most stunning train ride of my life both for it’s natural and man-made contrasting beauty and ugliness.
The buildings on the way into town are squatted, children peep out playing with planks of wood over little garbage heaps while their mothers stretch ragged cloth over rusty pipes sticking out of half-finished building walls. It is impossible to tell whether the building are new or old; accommodating lives in their various shapes of disrepair. Are they half built or half demolished and for how long have they been this way that these impoverished families in countless numbers have been able to make them their homes?
It is in this that one can truly see the population of China. It’s enormity. And it is breathtaking and heartbreaking to see such miserable innovation as skyscrapers are erected next door and factories pummel through the farmland.
As we arrive in Wuhan, an announcement in Mandarin describes the city and I piece together that Wuhan is a city of revolutionary history. A city of rivers. Steel and Iron leaders. Railway workers. Wuhan is the city that connects China to itself.
The temperature in the train station makes the sun blush in shame. Wuhan is immediately the hottest and dirtiest city I have ever been to. We get hassled by enough manic taxi drivers until Jeremy allows himself to be hustled by one particularly bossy woman. Dan and I make eyes at each other: This is a very bad idea. In the underground parking lot that she forces us to gather in, there is no circulation and the carbon monoxide chokes us. We are swimming in our sweat, covered in the filth of thick exhaust. Upon arrival to the tiny economy sized car, we realized that ourselves and our gear have absolutely no way of fitting into the vehicle especially considering the other fellow passengers she has managed to fanagle into this deal without alerting us. Jeremy finally gets furious. His rage works in our favour and someone offers us a van ride just before we all pass out from our much polluted lungs and light heads. It is Hell but we handle it with brave spirits. By the end of the cab ride we are making jokes about Hot Pots and Fiery Furnaces as if we were locals.
Our hotel is situated right next to Vox livehouse which is convenient though not altogether delightful. Despite our warm welcome by the young couple selling red and pink rubber shoes and the woman frying dumplings on our sidewalk, the hotel’s hourly rates are the first sign that it won’t be the schwankest stay of the tour by any stretch. In fact it is one of the worst hotels we’ve ever been in and we have stayed in countless shitholes. The misery is in the details: a broken electric mosquito trap in the centre of the bed, vibrating condoms, a blinking fluorescent tube light that cannot be turned off, recently spray-painted furniture and door frames, “Loose underwear” packages, Grandma-rose coloured walls, no hot water, scratchy soap, no toilet, unfathomably hard bed, and the kicker: a busted air conditioning unit. Our view (through windows we can pry open only inches) is obstructed by rusting blinking signage from the 1950s. Needless to say: Dan and I are giddy, giggling impossibly and inlove with Wuhan. No really. Seriously. We mean it: we love it.
Soundchecking takes some tackling as well but Vox is a great venue; a divey host to many of Wuhan’s most notorious punk bands. Filthy black walls. Fans stifled by thick cigarette smoke. Punk scribblings and stickers everywhere. And a sassy housecat named Chung Wu. I love industrial centres, rail hubs: the art produced is always harder but more human than human.
We slip passed watermelon hawkers and dozing battery vendors to a nearby restaurant. Even the greasy air of cooking is an oasis from the chemical outdoors. Jeremy orders a smoky silken tofu soup, cucumber with sweet bean, garlic eggplant with horse beans and beers. Cold delicious beers. Two shy fans notice us and we are honored to be recognized in the vastness of Wuhan. We hug them for photos in utter disbelief.
Back inside the venue, the crowd is growing, almost growling. When AV AKEBO take stage they ripple from the bar to the front. The band has attitude; sunglasses and thick grins, a dog collared bassist, union jack boxers on the guitarist and the drummer’s thin tattoos splinter down her arms raggedly. And they are truly truly good. Passages from a particular red book are shouted out while speakers threaten to buzz out. Half way through the set, some lunatic throws something from the balcony at the singer and a Mexican Stand Off ensues between him and the band. The crowd clears to the venue edges worried about breaking glass. Ready to fight, the bassist Eu walks to stage center and puffs his entire body to it’s maximum and dares him to say something funny. A bottle is broken and it is all very scary for fifteen minutes until eventually the idiot leaves and the band resumes their set.
We take stage for the very hottest experience of my life. We think we won’t make it and we definitely can’t breathe but we play our asses off and lose half our weight in buckets. Wholly one of the most thrilling nights of my life. In my head, I start composing my own loudspeaker train narrative: Wuhan is a heavy city. The musicians are hard. The fans are riled. It is a nightly revolution. It is fucking important. Wuhan is the city that connects China to itself.
We speak with tons of kids before going “backstage” (roughly a closet) to drink with AV AKEBO and friends. I decline someone’s offer to smoke heroin but talk to the guitarist about his other job as a train conductor. With the bassist we talk about not being able to have perspective on where you’re from or what you want because we live too in the throes of what we’re actually doing and making. He talks about touring America and his old punk bands. He and Dan share twin mean-spirited kind hearts and determine that they are somehow brothers. Which of course means more beer. One of the drummer’s friends tells me that she is trying to get my skin colour but I don’t fully understand the process she is undertaking. I tell her I’m surprised by her interest in my mixed Cubana blood since a lot of my other friends over here are always trying to get their skin paler in complexion. I try to figure out how to make her my sister. Which of course means more beer.
We lug our gear two doors down to our hotel. Too exhausted and dirty and hot to move, even to shower. We chug water before climbing on top of scratchy sheets and pass out from the utter chaos of the day. Winded (if there had been wind) by the heat and humanity of this insane town.