Trials of an accidental tourist

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 May, 1999, 12:00am

In Guilin there are tea-drinking ceremonies where you are invited to buy tea, workshops where they chop open oysters and tempt you with pearls, and tours of a government hospital where the doctors urge you to buy medicine.

The previous day, I had been dragged into the jaws of death by a cable car on the slopes of Yaoshan, the area's highest mountain. Today, two medics were using qi gong to fire electric charges into my body. Tomorrow? I shuddered to think.

I wouldn't have come to the Guilin Traditional Chinese Medical Hospital had it not been for the incident on the mountain, which had left me with a badly sprained thumb, a small price to pay when it could so easily have been my life.

A Hong Kong tour guide overheard me asking where I could buy medicine, at the Sheraton Hotel. 'We're visiting a hospital tomorrow. Come along, they will be able to help,' she promised. And so I was herded on to a bus with more than 30 Hong Kong and overseas Chinese, and surely enough the bus drove into the grounds of the hospital. We alighted at the main entrance, trooped past a pharmacy and up a couple of flights of stairs, passing doctors with files under their arms, and down a long corridor flanked by examination rooms. The group was directed into a lecture room and asked to sit on wooden forms facing wooden desks that reminded me of my days at primary school.

A doctor adjusted his white coat, mounted the dais and began a long discourse in Cantonese on the miraculous healing qualities of traditional Chinese medicines and the wonders of qi gong.

When he had finished, the group burst into applause and two more doctors, resplendent in freshly laundered white coats, burst on to the scene, jumped on to the stage, swung into kung fu-style action and then stood to attention while they were introduced.

Now things really started to warm up. Each plugged an electric cable into the wall and grabbed the end of the bare wire in his left hand. They placed their free hand onto a light bulb the lecturer was holding, and it lit up. They were using qi gong to act as conduits, he explained.

Did anyone have any problems? Headaches? Sore muscles? The doctors would demonstrate their healing abilities to any two members of the group who would step up to the stage. My thumb was throbbing and painful, my palm badly bruised, but they weren't going to get me up there.

I suffered in silence. I would ask if they had any herbal medicine at the end of the session. An elderly woman in the tour group complained that she had severe migraine and made her way up to the stage. She was substituted for the light bulb and began to twitch, and later said she felt much better. A gentleman who suffered from pains in his leg took the second spot and his leg started to dance as the doctors fed him a dose of electricity. As the treatment continued, my mind went back to my visit to Yaoshan. If you want to see perhaps the finest view your eyes have ever taken in, head for this mountain a short distance from the centre of Guilin. But take care.

To get to the top, you must take one of the longest cable car rides in China, lasting more than 20 minutes, not recommended for those suffering from vertigo. I chuckled at the sign at the entrance, which warned: 'Mental patients, drug addicts, drunkards and dull-witted people not allowed to ride.' Believing I had perhaps qualified to board, I went in, little knowing that this short journey would nearly cost me my life. At Yaoshan, the cable car would be better described as a ski lift. You stand at each side of a track with your back facing the car, and fall into it as it hits the back of your legs. Then an attendant pushes down the safety bar, and you are on your way. The cars never stop.

Halfway up the mountain the cars pass over a concrete platform where you can alight and take a toboggan ride on the return journey. I planned to do that, but was already a little hesitant after alighting at the top by pushing the safety bar up, jumping off the car and dashing to one side out of its path.

There was no one to assist riders leave the cable cars at the toboggan run. A couple in front of ours lifted the safety bar themselves, and a rope net behind the concrete platform didn't inspire confidence. Presumably it is meant to catch riders if they miss-time their jump, to prevent them falling to their deaths.

My wife and I jumped off, but a strap on the back-pack I was wearing had become entangled in the seat. I was unable to climb back on, or take off the pack, and the car was dragging me towards the far lip of the platform and a sheer drop.

Unable to loosen the strap, I was pulled to the edge of the platform. My wife was clinging to my legs, screaming, and I heard screams from the other cars. At the very edge, I dived to one side, and clung on to a railing as the cable car started to pull away from the platform, trying to take me with it. The screams seemed distant now, muffled, as if I was in a cocoon, and I thought to myself calmly: 'So, this is how I die.' Then the strap snapped, the car struck me on the head, and continued down the mountain. There were now two ways to get down, get back on a cable car or take the toboggan. The latter seemed the lesser of two evils and I zipped to the bottom, clinging to the brake.

In the lecture room, the demonstration had finished now, the doors swung open and girls wearing doctors' coats swarmed around us, arms full of pills and creams. Hard sell in a hospital.

I was handed a leaflet in English listing the herbal medications, 15 different kinds, for liver complaints, rheumatism, kidney ailments, hypertension, hemorrhoids, you name it. Outside in the corridor I found a doctor who could speak English and showed him my sprained hand. He pointed me towards an examination room and returned to my horror with our two qi gong heroes.

There was no escape, the cables were plugged in, my thumb twitched as the electric current passed through the doctors' fingers, herbal cream was rubbed in - and later that day the swelling subsided and the pain went away.