Sleeping In at Dragon Burn

Camping in Anji (安吉县) at the regional Burning Man

So that happened. A surprise opportunity to see what the Chinese interpretation of Burning Man would look like, for less than 100USD, tent & bus ticket included. Duh.

My friend had basically been camping at Xin Che Jian anyway, and he jumped at the opportunity to take the early bus out to volunteer and set up, which I’m a little jealous of, cause he got to build stuff. I woke up early the next day to make my way downtown to catch a bus. Unfortunately, I was feeling groggy when I descended to the subway platform during morning rush hour, and saw people stuffing themselves like sardines onto the southbound train and I thought to myself “Whoa. Good thing I don’t have to get on that train.” and took the path of least resistance onto the nearly empty northbound train. I took me 2 stops to realize I was going away from downtown when I had the opportunity to transfer to another equally stuffed train. I didn’t see how I would squeeze my full pack of luggage on and calculated that I probably wouldn’t make it in time anyway. The end of the line was called “Meilan Lake” and I thought that sounded nice so I just stayed on the roomy, quiet, wrong train.

Luckily I looked at a map (for once) to see that there wasn’t actually a lake anywhere near the Meilan Lake stop and got off at one of the University stops instead. I wandered around campus, trying to enjoy the streams and the sun and hoping I would run into something interesting, but ended up just heading back to Xin Che Jian after a half hour. The whole time I had a backup plan, of course: there would be a 7pm bus, and I had the feeling they would honor my bus ticket regardless.

Woman in native American headdress in Shanghai, telling people “Get the fuck on the bus” at once playfully and sternly. Chinese twenty-something in what I called “that hat people wear in rice fields” and she called “yeah, an asian hat.” carrying 40L of water. Sycamore trees in the French Concession.

Later in the afternoon, after killing time installing a different linux on my laptop (hooray! everything works on debian right away! ❤ debian) I decided to walk the mile and a half to the bus pickup spot, strangely enough an Australian sports bar. I later eavesdropped “there’s just not that many places in Shanghai to park a bus.”

So I meet my fellow burners. I shouldn’t have been too surprised but it was about 80% expats. People working in Shanghai from Copenhagen, Ireland, Canada, U.K. and so on. We shared some food, stood around while the luggage was loaded onto the buses. The ticket-taker couldn’t find my name on the list (since I bought a ticket for a different time) so she made me pinky-swear that I didn’t counterfeit my ticket and let me on the bus.

I picked a seat to myself, only now remembering that I have a hard time starting a conversation with someone without already having a reason.

I hadn’t slept much, and having just walked 2 miles with 30 pounds of stuff, I submitted to my exhaustion and closed my eyes for the first half hour of being on the bus. I tried to nap, ignoring the noise and the music of a bus on its way to a party in the forest, but eventually I opened my eyes to see the Chinese billboards and illuminated LED skyscrapers and was struck by the improbability and novelty of my rolling through Shanghai to the soundtrack of 1970s American Funk being played on a portable loudspeaker.

I decided that maybe it was a good thing I wasn’t talking to anyone, I could focus on the strange scenery out the window — the sprawling city and far off, inexplicable bright lights. At one point there was what looked like a half of a donut sticking out of the ground on the horizon, lit up like a televsion. I still have no idea what it was. Maybe it was just a giant, donut-shaped televison, maybe they have those here.

Eventually, though, the Canadian girl sitting by herself behind me tapped my shoulder, asking if I was travelling alone, and I traded in my excess legroom for a conversation partner. I told her about my work at FabLab and she told me about how she got a teaching job in Tripoli right out of college, owing to her double degree in History and Psychology. She says the job market wasn’t looking good for people who could only teach one thing, so she buckled down and double majored. She taught in Libya during a relatively peaceful period a year ago, but was evacuated soon after she started hearing gunshots at night aimed at her apartment bloc. Luckily, her contract was up soon anyway and she lined up a teaching job at one of the international (a.k.a. private) schools in Shanghai. I asked her about the curriculum difference between public schools and private schools, how China’s role in WWII was represented differently and the kids in private school were taught from U.K. textbooks. I wondered what conversations about history looked like between kids who had different educations, but she wasn’t around for that.

So of course I knew this bus was full of interesting people to talk to, you don’t get on a bus from Shanghai to a Burning Man by sitting at home all day, but still I couldn’t help but keep to myself. I tell myself that I have enough ideas I haven’t done anything about, and meeting people will just fill my head with new ideas before I’m done with any old ones. I know that’s dumb, I’m just rationalizing my introversion.

Anyway, this happened:

Pulled over in the middle of nowhere.

“Why did we stop? Did we lose the other bus?”

A few minutes go by.

“Does anyone know how to get to the campground?”

“Oh nooo, we’re the lost bus.”

“While we’re at it, does anyone on board know how to fly a plane? And also know how to get to the campground?”

My ‘VIP’ tent on the left, the more communal tent city on the right. There was food getting cooked in the tent city. You live, you learn.

But we made it, rolling up to a forest glowing bright green at half past midnight. People lined up to check in, renting tents and accepting the garbage bags being handed to each person. I opted to pay the extra ten bucks to rent a tent that was already set up on a platform so I could get right to dancing. That ended up being just a so-so decision, tho, since these ‘VIP’ tents were on a different part of the campground than everyone else. Not only was it removed from the easy community that comes with having a dozen people living a couple meters away from you, it was a lot closer to the main stage and the loudspeakers, which is pretty VIP until you want to sleep. In the morning when I was looking for a water kettle to cook my cup of noodles, I saw campers gathered in the walkways with propane hot plates and lots of finger food and again kicked myself for paying extra to stay at the top of the hill. I suppose I could have joined them, but I didn’t think I had much to offer and in general feel like I’m being rude if I insert myself into someone else’s situation.

Before I found out that I was going to be an introvert for the whole weekend, though, I did dance my butt off til 4am. I started recording the music just after that before crawling into my tent, too bad the recorder died after 7 minutes, the music played until noon. That was the most surreal part of the whole thing, waking up to gray light and looking out my tent to see a foggy forest at what I guessed was about 7am with like 8 people still dancing. Actually being able to lounge in my tent and watch the dance field was pretty cool, though.

I went back to bed, no longer phased by nonstop bass arpeggios. Actually I think it had an airplane-jet-engine-drone effect on me, where just the constant loudness lulls me to sleep. I’m pretty sure I woke up the second time when the music stopped, out of a confused “something’s different, what’s going on” kind of reaction to the quiet.

With the sun back in the sky, a few people stretching turned into an impromptu yoga class as people woke up and copied what the especially-stretchy guy was doing. We would follow him from one stretch to another, everyone laughing at themselves for not getting half as far into the stretch as our accidental class-leader.

More buses of people showed up, bringing the campground total to somewhere between 100–150 burners. People made art, offered their juggling clubs to people who wanted to try, and talked to each other during the quiet afternoon before the next DJ was scheduled. There was an awful lot of smoke circles that I didn’t want to participate in, so I felt put off from making friends, though in retrospect there were enough people sitting out that it wasn’t a good reason to keep to myself. I think what’s really happening with me is that I feel bad about not maintaining my existing relationships better, I know I leave people hanging a lot, maybe say ‘see you soon’ and never make plans. I imagine I’m doing a disservice to someone to introduce myself and make new friends knowing I won’t answer their messages either. It takes energy to reach out to people, and maybe I’m greedy with whatever energy I have, taking it for myself. I’m still trying to figure out how much I want to change that.

When I did want to socialize, though, there was a really great sunlit cabin beside the tent city and the dance field. The elongated honeycomb framing the windows overlooking the lake was really beautiful. The table was a giant slab of a single tree, 20 feet long and 4 feet wide, mounted on sawed off tree trunks. Really nice place to sit and boil water and chat. The regional’s organizer told stories of Burning Man back in the 90s, before they had rules about firearms, for instance. His old photos from the playa were strewn about the table, along with his choice comic books and various revolutionary propaganda. I borrowed a copy of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and fell asleep in a hammock.

The next morning I noticed a ‘Moka Pot Coffee Workshop (free coffee)’ on the schedule and made sure to be back at the cabin at 10am sharp. Had a really pleasant time sitting with people from all over the world exchanging coffee rituals. The Italian running the ‘workshop’ showed us how his grandmother whipped sugar and a drop of coffee into a foam. We struggled to find cups and found out PET has a pretty low melting point. I figured out I have a much better time with people who are waking up on stimulants than people passing around narcotics.

That’s about all I have to report. It was loud, I slept a lot, the mountains are really pretty, I actually don’t have a lot of fun at parties. Had a great conversation concerning how you learn a lot about yourself when travelling just because you’re always putting yourself in new situations, and you get to see how you react to it. I react to lots of things by sleeping.

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