Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Le Fútbol

Writers in Kyoto has published a quickie I wrote while in France last week.

A timely piece by roving correspondent Edward J Taylor about World Cup watching now up on the Writers in Kyoto website. It's been an engrossing tournament so far, and even as I type these words, Brazil have just scored against plucky Mexico. To get a feel about how it feels to be in France when the French play, please take a look here
On the turntable:  John Lennon, "Studio Tracks"

Friday, June 29, 2018

Tracking the Changes on Kyoto’s Bukkoji-dōri

The next installment of the Kyoto Streets series, at Deep Kyoto.

On the turntable:  Jimmy Cliff, "Beautiful World, Beautiful People" 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Papers: Chris Marker

On the turntable:Billy Cobham, "Conundrum"

Monday, June 11, 2018

Winding through the Silk Road

My latest travel piece for the Singapore Straits Times, on my train journey through Central Asia.

On the turntable:  The Jam, "In the City"

Friday, June 08, 2018

Tibet Journals IV: The Road Back

There is a guest house near the shores of Lake Mansarovar, long and low.  It reminds me of Baghdad Cafe, or the forlorn motels I'd seen during an earlier trip around the Salton Sea.  The romantic in me wanted to spend the night here, just reading and napping and watching the water fowl come to a confused landing on the ice that still defined the surface of the lake.  But the pragmatic in me ( sadly getting the upper hand more and more these days) recognized that we'd gained a day in our itinerary, and points further on showed more promise.   

A line of women performed full-length prostrations along the shoreline.  The lake is also sacred to Hindus (nearby Kailash thought to be the abode of Shiva), and some of Gandhi's ashes were spread here.  We climbed up to Chiu Monaster, prayer flags draped across the rocky face of the hill.  Just below is perhaps the world's finest 'loo with a view,'  a mere hole atop a stone platform, with an incredible 360 degree vista of the lake and the sacred mountains.  (Of course everyone within that 360 degrees would get a pretty good look at you too.) We banged on a door to rouse the caretaker, to show us around the temple, and its inner caves.  The main hall looked pretty new, with a bright and incredible statue of Guru Rimpoche, who spent the final days of his life here.  Asking the caretaker, he imposed a quota of a single photograph.

 We stopped for one last look at the lake, from a hillock topped by mani stones and yak skulls.  Then we turned our vehicle around and retraced the 600km back to Saga.  I passed most the ride in a book, but the dramatic landscape frequently pulled me out.  The eyes inevitably would go to some bizarre shape of a mountain, and sure enough, there by the roadside would be the tell-tale prayer flags.  I am most used to this in the ropes and zig-zag papers of Shintō, but of course the sacred in nature.  During one pee break I lingered awhile outside the vehicle relishing the emptiness both geographic and sonic. It was the purest silence I ever 'heard.'  Inspired perhaps by my time spent at the abode of Shiva, I felt the need to destroy it, and let out a long trilling bellow.     

We stooped again at the tasty Muslin restaurant.  A couple of smart and casually dressed Chinese men ate at an adjoining table.  They belonged to the pair of Land Cruisers out front, with the Beijing plates.  As my food cooked, I sat in the sun out front.  Two other Chinese men, not nearly as well off, were making a circuitous approach, gathering the courage to talk to me.  I used up my few sentences in Mandarin to answer a few questions, then needed to call LYL to translate. These men were part of a crew building a new road, and one of them had a crushing altitude-induced headache.  I gave him most of my remaining Paracetamol. This has happened to me numerous times during my travels, were a western face is often accompanied by pretty strong meds.     

We pulled out of Saga in a low lying mist.  It had snowed the night before, traces still coating the sides of the road.  There was a long delay at the top of the pass, as the road works there blocked traffic for awhile.  I got out and walked around, looking down at the row of trucks heaping upon itself.  Then we were through and cutting through the desert, the snow thicker here, and reflected with light that created mirages of lakes out in the distance.  Again, it had a beauty that can only be described as quiet. We left the road for awhile as we had a few days before, only this time with the snow we couldn't find our way back on.  A diagonal sort of triangulation brought the wheels back to tarmac.

 This too was unreliable as the snow requisitioned as we wound through hairpins to our final pass.  It was slick at the top, the drops big.  Large trucks moved slowly and cautiously, but D sped past.  He had an odd habit of braking or swerving suddenly, caused either by inattention or bad eyesight.  Over this surface I didn't find it so endearing.  The view from the pass was of a white world gradually giving way to brown.  The Himalaya was a wall directly to the front of us.  Then we would down and down, much farther than the climb up. A large group of foreign bicyclists was struggling on theirway up, but it would be nothing compared with what they'd face up top. 

 Down below all was tropical.  We followed a river out, on a road paved but barely. The drive reminded me of one I'd done through the Rockies of south Colorado, one right at home in a photograph of old model-T's creaking along in front of some stunning landscape.  Milarepa's birthplace was up a side canyon, but the road in was near impassible and filled with large rocks. A monastery presented the goal of an hour-long walk up a long twisty set of steps.  Now and again we'd dodge a car coming from the opposite direction.  Indians, G told us.  The fatality rate of Indian drivers was quite high, as they tend to drive much more aggressively than the Tibetans, who do indeed potter along.         

Huge snow-capped monsters rose up, and we found ourselves in the alpine setting of Kyirong.  According to Heinrich Harrer, “The name Kyirong means “the village of happiness,” and it really deserves the name. I shall never cease thinking of this place with yearning, and if I can choose where to pass the evening of my life, it will be in Kyirong."  It was this quote that made me forego the night at the Lake, and at first glance, I knew I'd made the right choice.  Perhaps a year from now, I'd be disappointed.  The classic route to Nepal used be the Friendship Highway through Zhongmu, but the earthquake had sealed it indefinitely.  This road had previously only be opened to traders, but had open to tourists six months before.  The flurry of building here was a study in optimism.  

We passed a couple of quiet days here, mainly reading and dozing in the corner room, snug beneath the massive peaks just beyond the glass. We did take a stroll before lunch, covering every inch of the town's modest grid of streets in less than an hour.  The town temple could have been in Crestone, set beneath the pines.  The shopkeepers were pretty relaxed, happy to smile and joke as we poked around the general stores.  Travel in China often requires an occasional time-out, and these settings of natural beautiful and mellow locals always work their magic. 

G had been called away on some sort of tourist emergency, so it was left to D to take us the final hour to the border.  The first check point wasn't open at the early hour, so we sat awhile in the cool of morning, waiting for the cops and the dogs to awake.  Thus through, the road dropped and dropped, down a deep cut gorge to an unbelievable 100 meters above sea-level. Damage from the earthquake across the border took the form of massive boulders at the edge of the road, and even one truck partially crushed by a landslide.  The queue of trucks began a kilometer or so before the immigration gate, but we slipped past and arrived not long before it opened.  A light rain began, and the clouds overhead added a lid to this narrow valley, bringing an oddly claustrophobic counterpoint to our entry 12 days before, sailing in through a wide and open pairing of desert and sky.  

On the turntable: Jeff Beck, "Wired"           
On the nighttable:  Paul Theroux,  "The Pillars of Hercules"

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Tibet Journals IV: Once 'Round Kailash

It was our fifth day spent above 4000m, and LYL was suffering some.  She ultimately decided not to join me for the kora around Mt. Kailash.  I didn't feel right to leave her, but she insisted.  She was happy to have a couple of days off the road, and the hotel room had heat and internet and power (though we weren't told the latter was for only four hours a day).  Plus as she spoke Mandarin, she could make her way around the little town of Darchen without much trouble.   This reassured, I set off at dawn the next morning.

I'd brought my trekking pack, one not new but as yet unused. I'd packed light, but was still a little concerned how I'd function at altitude.  Wanting too to help give work to one of the locals I'd hired a porter, Sonam, which somehow I'd predicted. A 18 year old just out of school, he'd refused pay up front, since he didn't want to be tempted to waste it on food or drink on the journey, preferring instead to turn it over to his grandmother. (I'd really wanted a yak, but it was too early in the season, and their hooves would be unable to handle the lingering ice of the passes. ) Despite this I decided to wear my pack for the first hour or so, until we crossed the first pass.  G and D were along of course, the latter not required to, but wanting to make the trip.  G was particularly excited, as this would be his 100th circumambulation around one of the most sacred mountains in the world.

Cows roamed unattended in the dull light.  A group of women rested against a building, before resuming their full-length prostrations.  (I'd seen a number of people making their pilgrimage this way, nearly all being women.)  There were more further on, the mark of their fingertips in the dust, as they inched their way up this slope that would top out at 4730m.  A few people were resting there, including one family that had two young children with them.  I handed my park over to Sonam who looked a bit relieved.  G told me that he'd felt uncomfortable at my wearing it.  After performing a trio prostrations, we set down the opposite side.

The trail across the valley was through a desert landscape, the side of the trail barren and littered with small stones.  Thick bands of river beds cut the dry earth, unladen with water as the winter snows had yet to melt.  On a ridge above to the right was a place for sky burials and directly ahead loomed the mountain, fuller in body than when seen from the south.  We rang the bell hanging from the belly of a hollow chorten, then pushed on, beneath the gaze of Chuku Monastery.

The valley began to narrow.  There was a semi-permanent yurt tea house here,  offering simple food to pilgrims. The two caretakers were red-robed, their long hair tied in the back.  I coudn't quite make out if they were nomads or monks.  I decided to wait to eat until the next tea house a couple of hours on, but I enjoyed a rest while the others ate.  A Russian party of about a dozen ate quietly at an adjacent table.  They were carrying a fair amount of gear and looked pretty tired already.  G told me that the kora was popular with Russians for some reason, and previous explorers from that country had a theory that the mountain actually a massive man-made pyramid.  (I found out later that LYL was reading about the mountain while was walking around it, and came across some pretty interesting and bizarre information.)              

We pressed on, passing the Russians who seemed to dropping like flies.  Later I'd see the main body of the group  moving toward an immense cut in the mountains' western flank.  G mentioned that there was a tougher alternative route through that valley, and that they were foolish to try this early in the year.  The prostrators didn't seem to have it much easier, move like inchworms.  Many wore thick mitts, and what looked like butcher's smocks, the leather protecting against the friction on the ground. What had less protection was their faces, chapped red from the sun and wind.  Most of them seemed to be undertaking their three-week journey in groups, and had a support vehicle that would set up camp, the finish line for the day.  Now and again a vehicle would drive slowly past, cargo bed piled high reminding me of the chasers that work in tandem with balloonists.  Passing one group resting, one of the women asked D to carry a pair of thermoses, to be deposited a km or so further on.

And we moved along.  The walking was okay, but I found myself feeling somewhat euphoric, as if had had a couple of beers.  Reality had a certain elasticity as I moved across the moonscape.  My fingertips would tingle now and again, and fatigue came and went.  When sitting to take a rest, there was a dream-like quality to it, as I wasn't quite here. All of my movements were slowed down, and accompanied by much fumbling, and a general lack of digital coordination. .  Accompanied too by paranoia that others would notice, and I giggled that it was more like being high on pot.  Which might explain too why i'd start to walk off, leaving things behind.  Strangest of all were the moods that I shifted through:  elation, fatigue, mild disorientation. But it was always to euphoria I that would return.       

My overall mood changed after the second tea house, which was closed for some reason. I kicked myself now for not receiving the noodles offered at the previous stop.   I had some trail snacks with me, namely nuts and chocolate and chilied yak jerky. G offered me some Tibetan fry bread, which went well with the latter.  But the high altitude demanded more. What I was really missing now, with the wind coming up, was a warming cup of tea.  

With the weather coming on, we don't linger long. After an hour or so I began to feel heavy and sluggish, my blood sugar seeking lower elevations.  The sky too was taking on a darkening shade, and snow flurried here and there. The wind blows into mini-cyclones the dust around us. Under this weather, marmots popped their heads up in a parody of groundhog's day.  And the mountain maintained a solid, anchoring presence above and to my right.

As we closed in on camp, I rested more often, pacing myself.  Sonam was somewhere up ahead, and we hadn't seen D in a while, he having wandered along solo off trail, his continuous chanting pretty impressive considering the work that the lungs were forced to do.  During one break, a young Chinese man offered me some chocolate.  Due to his height and features I'd thought he was Japanese at first, but I could figure out somehow that he was from Ningxia.  His partner was having a far rougher time than I, and later on the trail, I saw them walking hand in hand. I too move along as the road begins to climb.  The squared corner of the guesthouse beckons from just beyond the rise, so i put my head down and power on. 

We'd arrived at the camp in good time.  The sun was high again and the day growing warm.  There was better heat inside the yurt, and as I ate a plate of simple rice, more and more people dragged themselves in.  Like always in Asia, there were loads of people around, and I inevitably try to figure out how they all relate. But being weary, I gave up.  One young girl stood waiting for lunch in her pigtails and native dress, and when the noodles arrived she launched an attack on them.  I assumed a family ran this place, but in fact it was looked after solely by a pair of women.  Most of the other people were workers, slowly assembling the concrete shell of a new hotel.  The banging and thudding took a great deal away from the peace of this high mountain idyll.  After awhile I'd pretend that the pneumatic drills were Tibetan horns, coming from the temple across the valley.      

After lunch, I sat awhile in the sun and read, the mountain just in front.  Over the next hour or so, the Russians began to straggle up, usually to ask me if I'd seen the rest of their party.  G asked at some point and asked if I wanted to visit the monastery across the valley. It was tricky going over the frozen river below.  A pair of small guest houses stood abandoned on either bank.  There didn't appear to be too many monks here, but one young man led us around, and going up the steep steps I noticed his ankles, black and caked with dirt.  In time I realized that he had some kind of mental handicap, and seemed to appreciate contact with G, often throwing his arm around him, of giving him hugs.  G had proven himself to be a very kind and sweet man, and he return the contact happily. 

We moved through the rooms, looking at statues and thanka old and new.  There were plenty of other things here, drums and brass horns, and parts of animals, and it all resembled some odd kind of folk museum.  Best of all of course were the views, of Kailash rising eminently across the valley.  I imagine that a life spent here would be the utmost challenge.  But that view might make it seem worth it. 

  I returned to the guest house to find that some Russians had commandeered my room. They simply dumped some of my things onto a table outside, and it took awhile to find my pack. I began to tell them off, the thoughtless and selfish bastards, but unable to find a common language to make it stick I tossed a few names their way and walked off. G found me another room, and assured me that I wouldn't have to share.  (I was grateful, then felt guilty the next day when I found that he and D and Sonam had slept in the main dining room, to allow this to happen.)  It was still light but night was coming on, so decided to settle in, wanting a little isolation.  G later thoughtfully brought me a plate of fried potatoes, but they were cold and sodden with oil, so I abandoned them in the far corner of the room.

Even with my warmest sleeping bag it was pretty cold, so I threw a few old blankets over the top. Still sleep refused to find me.  I was nearly there, until someone began to pound on the window, eventually with enough force to break through the lock.  But rather than enter, they settled into the room next door.  I assumed that I'd been given the room of some of the workmen, now drunk after dark.  They kept up and incredible racket late into the night, talking on their mobiles and playing obnoxious music.  It was a painfully long night.         

In the morning, in full dark I crept out of my bag into the cold.  I'd brought a change of clothes but decided not to suffer the cold into pulling them on.  I packed up, had some chocolate and coffee for breakfast.  The workmen next door were finally quiet and still.  Before leaving, I was incredibly tempted to fasten a lock to their door.  They of course kick their way through, but I felt myself wanting a small modicum of revenge. But after another thought or two I figured I shouldn't be so petty, being on pilgrimage after all.
It was still a couple of hours before daybreak, but the mountains were silhouetted as white crags against the dark.  Well above 5000 meters now, both breath and footfalls grew heavy.  There is a certain meditation in moments like this, as reality is condensed to images so distilled it is as if they were shot with a pinhole camera.  And after that level of concentration relinquishes its grip, the details recede and memory becomes unreliable. I do recall sitting to have a snack break, and only upon standing again that I was in a sky burial site.  

The east was growing light, bringing more definition to Kailash and her adjacent peaks.  My fingers were incredibly cold and quickly growing numb, a side effect of the frostnip they'd received in a blizzard five years before.   I couldn't wait for the warmth that would come once I got over to the east side of the pass.  Despite my layers of heavy hiking gear I never did feel warm, so was further in awe of the Tibetans who literally strolled past in their simple clothing, chanting despite the thin air, fingering their rosaries with bare hands.  

 Then I was finally atop 5630 meter Drolma-la.  I strung up my prayer flags, then tossed a handful of paper lungpa into the air.  D and G were busy stringing a much longer strand of flags a little ways up the hill.  I watched the stream of Tibetans walk past as if casually heading to the shops. I saw the young boy from yesterday, along with a couple of other kids.  One girl of about four was in tears, looking particularly cold.  I offered her one of my heat packs, but could do nothing about the two days journey ahead of her little legs.  I could only focus on my own.

We moved cautiously down the pass, slick and hazardous with ice. There was a shelf of a plateau at the bottom of the ridge, basked in the glorious rays of the sun.   This was the run off of a laek, frozen thick now, and we mock skated across, giggling as we went.  A rock field defined the far edge, so we here awhile, watching the light filling the valley before us.  This was the most glorious part for me, that peace, a relaxation both physical and mental after the most difficult part is done.  But we couldn't relax completely,  The next section was an impressively long, unsteady descent over terrain ever turning under foot.  The cold girl from early was nearly skipping down.          

We met her and her family at the tea house at the bottom.  Hot drinks never taste as good as they do after extreme cold.  You can almost feel the fluid coursing through the body, reactivating the dormant systems.  Thus warmed we moved along the floor of the valley, mercifully flat but for the odd stump of a rise.  We'd criss-cross the frozen rivers now and again, colorful prayer flags interladen with the white.  But these in our happiness we'd nearly vault across, hopping the rocks to the opposite bank.
But the walk, while much easier, began to grow long.  I hadn't eaten much, and had gotten next to no sleep, two factors that conspired against forward progress.  I'd take more frequent breaks, but appreciated the time to enjoy the landscape.   

Then finally came Zutul-puk Monastery.  Most pilgrims would spend their second night here, but it was only lunchtime.  I'd expected cup noodles, but was pleased that they prepared some real ones from scratch.  As we ate, G complimented me on my pace, joking that I wasn't a foreigner, that I walked like a Tibetan.  he said that next time I should do the kora in a single day, like the locals.  I joked back that his first mistake was assuming there'd be a next time.  

I was spent but we needed to do 32 km on the day, this after the 20 km of the previous day, not to mention the hard work earlier on the pass.   I told the guys to keep eating an went to take a 30 minute nap in the sun.  I dozed awhile, but then was awakened by my fear of a mastiff coming over to protect the tents behind me.  Returning inside, I asked G to take me up to the monastery on the hill above, and I got a further rest waiting for the guy with the key to the Milarepa cave to finish his lunch. It turned out to be the same pony-tailed guy from the tea house yesterday.  So he was a monk after all.

The rest of the day was a slog, through that long flat valley.  D was out in front this time, and we overtook him at one point sitting in conversation with two attractive young pilgrims.  A number of other women were doing full length prostrations. I couldn't imagine them doing this over the pass, pointing their bodies downward over the slick ice.  Most amazingly, three of them were extending their bodies across the frozen river.  Even G and D took their photos.  

The final stretch was through a valley that could have been New Mexico, red treeless hills set against a flawless sky.  I took more breaks more frequently now, trying to pace myself and extend my energy.  At each stop I'd nibble a little chocolate, bartering my rations for blood sugar.  I can't remember ever feeling quite so wearing, and I have never pushed myself to this limit while hiking.  In consolation I reminded myself that this vehicle which has been propelling me through life has over five decades of mileage on it.

 As if a test, the final section was an ascent, then along a knife-edge trail running high above fast moving water.  But the section to come was the hardest.  We curl out of the mountains to the high plain, Darchen and our goal visible on the horizon.  And no matter how much we pushed on, that goddamn town seemed to come no closer.  This had a certain negative effect on the spirit, and I took breaks every 20 minutes or so.  Then finally, mercifully, we were there.   

I took a lot of pride that I'd done this three day walk in two.  The main reason was that I didn't want my wife to have to spend another night alone. She seemed happy when I saw her, having had a nice couple of days resting and enjoying the company of the young woman who ran the restaurant beside our hotel.  Not to mention their heat.   

And I in turn appreciated a hot shower, and a 12 hour sleep and the feeling that I'd done something really really big.  

On the turntable: "Fatal Flower Garden Variations (Various)"
On the nighttable:  Hal Roth, "We Followed Odysseus"

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Tibet Journals III: EBC

 We detoured off the Friendship Highway through a large gate marked as the access route to Everest Base Camp. While stopped beside it in order to get our papers checked I got out to stretch my legs below an array of jagged mountains that while they were also-rans in comparison to the peaks to come, they impressed in the way they imposed their odd contortions upon the flat brown plateau. All was quiet but the wind, which seemed not to bother a woman standing alone out here.  Nothing else moved. (That would change when we passed through the gate again the following day. Below the sign were a half dozen Land Rovers parked side by side, and a photographer attached to this obviously Chinese expedition lying in the road before them in order to get it all in frame.

Almost immediately, the road began to go through a number of contortions of its own, as it twisted itself through dozens of hairpin turns, climbing steadily toward the pass above.  From its reaches the Himalaya revealed themselves, filling the horizon with snowy triangles.  Everest was somewhere among them, though concealed by cloud. The road then led us down toward them, slipping through curves coiled even more densely.  Along the wall, a pair of Tibetan antelope raced across the road, while a third, far less daring, waited beside a hillock beside the road.  

The road finally unreeled itself, then was threaded through an arch blasted through rock.  Below was a small village built below the ruins of an old Dzong.  This scene would be repeated a handful of time, as the road, arrow straight now, point us toward the mountain, not yet visible.  I wanted to check our progress, but Google maps is blocked in China, and all I got was a blue dot flashing there amongst a featureless center of the world.  Very Buddhist indeed. 

In one village our passage was impeded by a stream of lambs crossing the road. Where the settlements gave way, the river roared through, feeding an intricate series of irrigation channels that were a mandala of criss-crossing streams, some even somehow passing over others. Then water gave way to earth and the mountain presented itself. Not long afterward, we were at her feet.   

The intent had been to visit base camp in the morning, but the weather was too perfect.  We drove past the final checkpoint, out to a cluster of huts on the horizon.  The true base camp was another couple of km further on, but the tourist explosion had called for an alternative site to be built so as not to trouble those who intended to actually climb the thing.  And I felt cheated again by tourism, where the authenticity of a historic cite was packaged and compromised to meet the needs of an out of control market.  And to what ends? This new "base camp" had the atmosphere of a rock concert, of hundred of yurts built around a massive car park.  I was glad not to be staying here, as it would be a smokey and noisy and not to mention bloody freezing night.

We walked toward the silhouettes on the horizon, little groups taking selfies out by the commemorative stone.  It was cold here at dusk, and the people we passed were bundled up in parkas provided by their tour companies.  One young guy was huffing off a canister of oxygen.  A team of yaks moved slowly past.  A guard was standing beyond the stone, marking a boundary of sorts.  We went a little past and stood looking up at Everest. A series of vans drove further in, probably the summit team we'd met at lunch earlier.  At some point the urge to take photos crept in, me posing in an ironic showing of my North Face hard shell  Eventually I walked over beside the ribbon of a fast-moving river, then dunked my hands in the mountain's snowmelt, for as long as they could stand it.  But my eyes kept returning to the mountain. It was a strange feeling, to be looking at the biggest thing in the world.   

We had been able to score a room in the guest house, our windows luckily facing south.  Dinner was a simple bowl of noodles, in a room covered floor to wall to ceiling with wool and felt, fortified to keep the cold at bay.  There was a group of French here, as well as a small party probably from Singapore. A half dozen members of the military held court at one end of the room, smoking, and drinking, and talking loudly. (Later I'd see one of them pitch a glass bottle from their vehicle into the guest house car park.)  I grew tired of their swagger and went to fend off the cold in sleep.

It was a futile gesture, the cold and the 4,980 elevation making it difficult to sleep. At dawn, I lifted the curtain to watch the mountain come into the light.  Yaks grazed between us, a photograph to be stored eternally in memory.  When LYL began to stir I dressed quickly, a foolish thing to do in the cold.  Picking up my mountaineering watch from the dresser, I saw that the temperature inside the room was minus 5 degrees C.    

After breakfast, we crossed the road to visit Rombuk Monastery.  There were only a handful of monks here, chanting on their cushions, bundled in their robes against the cold.  I know from reading about the Mallory expeditions that the priest here was a very powerful and generous man.  I imagine his current predecessor too must be,  for the temple had been abandoned until recently, and the needs of restoration are great. 

In my readings, I'd often seen the classic photo of Rombuk with the mountain in the background.  I climbed the hill behind the monastery to frame my own.  A trio of middle aged Han tourists already were up there with their elaborate cameras, as their van waited below.  The whole hillside was littered with the brick foundations of ruined buildings, and I noticed one of the men turn to piss into the doorway of a collapsed monastic cell.  It was the most apt metaphor of the entire trip.  

On the turntable:   Santana and Jeff Beck, "Lotus Gem"
On the nighttable:  Graham Robb, "Parisians"