I let out an unavoidable grunt. A pack of dogs bark incessantly in the background and the ever present tune of “It’s a small world after all” rings out through the streets.
I know it’s the street cleaner, spraying down the road, in what is largely a futile attempt to alleviate the thick blanket of dust that coats the city. It’s a cheery melody cutting through an otherwise bleak day.
It’s a day when pollution has hit extreme levels in Xi’an. The air pollution index app flashes a cringe-worthy 400+ (the world health organisation says 25 is healthy) and we are ranking 4th in the world for worst air pollution.
I’m face down – on an extremely hard massage bed. Four of us have decided, on a whim, to escape the bubble (after days stuck inside) and come out for the “experience!”
With the city resembling a scene from The Apocalypse, we’re all masked up – our throats burn and our eyes sting.
Through the haze, our driver points out the sign “massage” amongst a throng of colourful Chinese characters.
We’re met at a tiny entrance with an abrupt “Nihao” from a man in a white coat – he ushers us through a thin blue curtain to the “massage room.”
This is no ordinary massage parlour.
There’s no dimly lit, private affair; the smell of essential oils definitely isn’t wafting in the smog-filled air, and there’s no music to sofly lull us into a relaxed state of mind.
Looking much more like a stark hospital, there are four beds side by side. People are coming and going, shouting softly as only Chinese can and phones ring on an off. There’s an old pot belly stove in the corner, where a man heats up water in a shiny silver tea pot.
English is pretty much non-existent so I surprise myself with some Chinese. My friend wants the toilet. Of course it’s squat and there’s no toilet paper.
Eventually all four of us, are in face-plant position, stifling giggles. Fully clothed, we are on the beds, towels are draped over us from head to toe.
Four serious looking men in white coats (probably a little bamboozled at the site of four “wai guo ren” chatting animatedly amongst ourselves) waste no time in getting down to business.
We figure out early on, this not going to be soothing, relaxing or peaceful in any way!
I hear traditional Chinese music ringing out and think “ahhh there is calming music after all” but it’s just one of the worker’s phones. The masseurs come and go throughout the massage.
When they are on the job, these guys are hardcore — Chinese masseurs and their massage technique equals intense! Using acupressure they seem to find every knot that’s ever existed in my body. There’s no gentle lead up to kneading deep into the tissue. This, my friends is so fast and furious it will actually curl your toes! At one point, I am grimacing so hard, trying desperately not to let out an almighty shriek. “Breathe in, breathe out!” I silently tell myself.
I laugh when I realise the girls are all doing the same.
Consecutively, we seem to grunt, groan and giggle our way through one hour! At one stage, my French friend is in so much agony she’s lost her English words!
I tell her in a muffled voice to chant the mantra “no pain, no gain!” It’s a new motto for her, laughter erupts.
At last our time is up. We all stumble from the bed, feeling (and no doubt looking) like we’ve been hit by a truck, or as my mum would say, “Dragged through a bush backwards!”
At the same time, we feel looser, lighter and confident those knots have been thoroughly beaten out of us! And for a brief moment we’ve forgotten about the dirty, brown haze, that looms overhead, filling our nostrils with an intense burning smell.
And for a mere 80RMB (US$12) who are we to complain! We tell them “Feichang hao” (Very good) and bid them “Zai jian!” (Goodbye). They wave, smile and look on – amused at the four foreigners – all masked up and ready to retreat back to their caves.
This is China!