Monday, June 17, 2019

Imbibling Bibliophile #72

 Tokaido by Terry Ann Carter
End Roll American Pale Ale, Barbaric Works Brewery
On the turntable: Blur, "13" 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

On the Great Eastern Road VI

Maybe it was the early start, or maybe it was simply the the signs for the train system made sense to somebody, but not to me.  Whatever the case, I'd gotten on the wrong train which, despite leaving from the platform marked for Yokohama Station bound trains, surprised me by terminating in Higashi Kanagawa.  I'd assumed I'd be immune to such things after 25 years, but matter, it was only a 20 minute walk to set things right. 

The mistake enables me the opportunity to pass Hongaku-ji, the site of the first US Consulate, and the place where they took the Richardson's body after the Namamugi Incident.  The bombing of Kagoshima that followed led in some part to Japan's eventual opening to the west, but it was in another bombing in May 1945 when the Americans destroyed the temple itself, incinerating all but a few trees. 

I meet the Tokaidō where I left it two years back. The road begins to rise, as does the humidity.  This first section is layered with apartment blocks, all recent, hinting that the scale of the wartime bombings, which destoyed over 40 % of the city in just an hour.  Today, the apartments discharge housewives who make their way to the opening of the local stores.  The only evidence of the old are the historic signs, which appear with surprising regularity. I forget sometimes the richness of the city's history, and make a mental note to return to explore more deeply.

The newer residential areas have posts to divide the sidewalks from the streets, a passive aggressive attempt to stop illegal parking.  Each post is topped with a little soccer ball, which gives them a definitively phallic look, like saying "F.U!" to wayward parkers.  Speaking anachronistically, this could have been dealt with by the old samurai who used to man the old barrier gate erected to prevent the wave of violence against foreigners after the consolates werefisrt incorporated.  While they are at it, the samurai could also issue citations for bad haircuts, of which this area seems to have an affinity.  Though it could simply be a fad, led by one female candidate on an election poster.

I move steadily along, but for a short detour up to Sengen Jinja, affiliated with the Fuji cults, who would have climbed a mock mountain built on the shrine grounds.  This is long gone, as are any remaining views of the original muse. But the spirit lives on perhaps, at a small festival at the Matsubara arcade.  Stalls have been pulled out onto the narrow street, just beyond the division with the old Hachioji Kaidō.  The temple that once stood here had a copy of Nikko's See-Hear-Speak No Evil Monkeys of an ancient vintage, though the monkeys aren't tellin'.   (Actually, a thorough and interesting and thoroughly interesting explanation can be found here.)

I spend the entire morning across Japan's second largest city.  At some point I pass an old building where the Hodogaya honjin used to stand. It is not of an Edō vintage of course, probably early Meiji, with nice wooden framework, stone storehouse, and corrugated tin covering what would have been a tiled roof.  It's amazing that the building has survived, as almost nothing else I've seen today pre-dates 1923, let alone 1945.  Perhaps that's where all the tiles have gone, shaken off during the quake of that earlier date. This design feature was certainly deliberate as it lightens the structure, like a dog shaking off water.

I pass an Inari shrine whose tunnel of arches are being hemmed in by high, unkept grass.  Nearly lost in these is a small statue of Battō Kannon, the horse head on the helmet a manifestation of compassion for pack animals as the make their way up steep hills. And before long they begin.  I climb and descend and twist, moving deeper into suburb.  The gleaming towers of Yokohama's waterfront look bound by a cat's-cradle of electrical lines.  One hillside is crawling with colored houses that remind me of Valparaiso.   An apartment complex, called "Fuji B," can't be older than a dozen years or so, a time when any view of Fuji would have long been hemmed in.       

I eventually rejoin the main road.  There's a small arcade here, with a butchers and a cafe.  I am getting a strong scent of garlic and olive oil from somewhere, and my stomach begins to do gymnastics.  I detour around looking for the source, looking forward to a nice plate of pasta.  But sadly, the mysetery is solved when I pass a school across the road, and the army of women at work in the kitchen.

I begin to trudge up the next set of hills, my nose filled with a vinegary smell.  Unfortunately i'm keeping pace with the garbage collector, and the scent that accompanies me with each deep breath is that of rubbish.  My stomach again does gymnastics.

Luckily I'm rewarded with an Italian lunch, which spy by accident on my GPS.  The shop is s bit untidy, run by a friendly man with slightly flamboyant gestures. The interior is a mish-mash of art and styles, but all with the common denominator of Europe.  I love these little type of places, where passion for a hobby leads to an alternative way of living.  Unfortunately, the owner cooks like a bachelor, the food simple and without much creative thought.  The muggy heat outside calls for a beer, but the scent is skunky and beginning to go off.  I ponder for while then politely suggest he might change the keg.  He does, but this glass too isn't much better.  Looking around again at the shop and come to the conclusion that he doesn't clean the lines.  I poke around at the rest of the food, leaving a fair bit behind.  As I pay, the once friendly man begins to tutter, mainly since he's given me a fresh beer, which I only sipped at.  Embarrassed, I make a great show of taking few gulps, then am out the door.

My stomach still does gymnastics, and the scenery does little to distract .  At the edge of the next town is an empty lot, at whose center is a towering kusunoki, undoubtably famous, marked as it is in my guidebook, which has saved it from destruction.  But all else is ruin.  The Tokaidō adjoins here the bust Route 1, which originated at Tokyo's Imperial Palace and runs all the way to Umeda.  And not an inch of it has any charm.  Sadly I'm forced to follow this busy road for the rest of the day.

There are a few short reprieves, but these are hardly much better.  One segment has me moving slowly downhill, the road to busy to walk on, and the sidewalk running up and down like a children's rollercoaster.  A sign mentions the famous namiki that used to line this section, but these too are long gone.  All I get now is the roar of fast moving traffic.  In fact, the only real history I see are the occasional older house set back from the highway, surround by high walls and completely overgrwon by vegetation.  The only beauty I see is the colors are potted flowers.  This is Japan walking at its worst.

The old post town of Fujisawa offers a few minutes of respite, as the road jogs around to cross the old Yugyōji Bridge, decked with copious signs that suggest a certain fame, but no amount of digital poking around suggests nothing more special than just being an old bridge.  (And not even old, being a 1955 concrete monster.). Not far away is a historic center that has a few displays and some information about the town.  I also see a mother-daughter team who I saw a half an hour ago, as we leap-frogged along for awhile.  I had suspected that they were simply locals going about their business, but I supposed they are also walking the Tokaidō.  A woman offers to turn on a video about the old town, but we all beg off.   The busy highway has worn us so down that even a history buff like me doesn't give a shit anymore.            
I finally get to the outskirts of Chigasaki, as building rain clouds prematurely darkens the day.  Then the drops begin.  But at least here there actually are namiki, and these red pines are doing their job in sheltering me from the weather.  Then I find the marker for the old ichirizuka, and turn myself toward the train station. 

I am hoping that I don't have to detour widely around, but a escalator suggests otherwise.  And bizarrely, when I reach the top I see Pat, who I'd been intending to meet.  Both of us being big fans of Ozu, we'd decided to stay the night at the Chigasaki-kan where the director and his screenwriter Noda Kogo wrote some of their scripts, most notably Late Spring.  To quote Noda: 

One scenario usually took us from three to four months, that is, if we weren’t adapting something but were working from scratch. That’s how long Tokyo Story took. We did it at this inn in Chigasaki. It was more a boarding house [yadoya] than an inn [ryokan]. We had this eight-tatami room which looked out on the east and south to a long garden and had good sunshine. The buds came out, then the flowers, then the fruit, and we still weren’t finished. Whenever we went for a walk we’d do the shopping. Ozu used to buy meat and make hamburgers. And we drank a lot, too. By the time we’d finish a script we’d sometimes have over a hundred big empty sake bottles—though our guests would help drink them up, too. Ozu used to number all the bottles. Then he’d count them and say: “Here we are up to number eighty already and we haven’t finished the script yet.”

 Our own goals weren't so lofty.  I was planning to continue my walk the following day onward to Hakone and Chigasaki was the midpoint.  But as we go out later to meet another pair of blockheads, I begin to toy with the idea of giving up on the walk and just hang around town instead. This is unlike me, as once I get my teeth into an idea I rarely let myself get distracted.  Yet I want more time at Ozu's inn, and I really like this little surfer- beachbum kingdom, hemmed in as it by the busy and concreted modern world.   But it was my feet who had the final say, directed as they were by the mellow pace of the flip-flops I'd slipped on as we headed toward a night of craft beers and talking books.

Later, Pat and I buy a bottle of sake to take back to the inn to honor our filmmaking heroes.  Along the way we nearly reconsider, spying a jazz trio blasting away to a nearly empty bar.  It seemed the perfect way to close out an early summer night. But film wins out in the end.  We wander back to our room, to sit and overlook the spacious garden, as we begin to reel through our own Ozu stories, as the bottle began to move toward the character "無." 

On the turntable:  Fleetwood Mac, "25 Years the Chain"
On the nighttable: Tom Wolfe, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"     

Friday, June 14, 2019

Imbibling Bibliophile #71

Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Wright
Weisen, Doppo Breweries
On the turntable: Blur, "The Best of Blur"

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Tracing ancient footprints in Old Nara

Adorning the main hall at Hōrin-ji is a trio of Buddhas. The triptych is common to the era, and to the place.  What grabs me though are the faces.  The central image, the important one, dates to the 10th Century, with the soft, round facial features of the Asian mainland.  But those on either side are from four centuries earlier, the faces darker, more gaunt.  I wonder how well these faces reflect the older natives of the time, when newer migrants and attendant culture fresh from China, from Korea, were diluting a population base that had arrived centuries earlier from the south.  

I'd passed another relic on the walk over from Hōryu-ji, a beautiful old house with ornately detailed carvings, beneath a roof of corrugated metal hiding thatch beneath.  It is abandoned, fenced in. Standing as it is at the confluence of roads, the poor feng shui probably did it in.  More dramatic perhaps are the utility lines towering above, whose own flow of power too may have contributed to the inevitable, and pitiful, end.   

I look at an adjacent utility tower that stands behind Hōki-ji, and wonder if it was here twenty-three years ago, when I did this same walk with Jordan in the cold rain of January.  I feel my dear late friend is with me on today's walk too.  I recall well our doing this particularly unattractive next section, a long slog into Nara deer park, only to find that the annual yamayaki had been cancelled due to the bad weather.  

Today too the sky is a grey slate, a far cry from the usual bluebird weather of May.  I am hurrying along, hoping to beat the rain which is forecast to fall after 1 pm.  It is meant to be a short walk anyway, only as far as Jiko-in..  I find the priest there holding court with some guests, bemoaning the loss of the varieties of tea culture.  Osaka and Kyoto used to have distinct styles of tea, but they have all been diluted by Kyoto style, as has the rest of Japan.  He says that it is a shame what is happening to the beauty of this country.  After he leaves, the old woman finds it difficult to stand, complaining that her feet are asleep.  You feel a little like a spy at these times, as no one assumes that you can understand what is being spoken about.  

Just past noon I pass a small sake shop, in front of which an uncle pops the top of his first One Cup of the day.   Though I shouldn't judge, for not much later I relish the taste of the beer I take at an Indian curry joint where I complete my walk.  And the rain begins to fall as predicted.  

On the train ride home, I muse that photography is killing my writing.  With a camera you look at things;  with writing you look through them.  And in this spirit I revisit the walk I did with Jordan back in January 1996, reading the journal entry whose prose seems drunk itself, on Snyder and Zen:

Sunday, Jan. 14 -- went to Nara, Hōryu-ji to be exact, J and I walking the long tree-lined drive, stretching upward like legs to meet the Sanmon gate, free ride back to the place of our birth, a glimpse of my parents' pre-concieved face.  The west side contains a small hall containing a lone figurine and tatami, a pleasant place to hide away, ignoring the tourists while studying, reading and watching the seasons change.  Down the hill, the walls of the main hall are streaked red from centuries worth of hands stained from hinoki pillars.  Wander jovial and mockingly through the treasure halls, then out to a narrow country road, winding, winding.    Temple-side lunch, then on to a pagoda rising from rice fields.  To Jikō-in, with green tea and garden walk in small sandals.  Walk the bamboo forest on a path bordered by water-worn Chinese scroll cliffs.  A taxi ride follows a failed attempt at hitching.  Toshōdai-ji's buildings stand somber in the winter grey.  Yakushi-ji's pagodas rise in the dimming light, one newly painted looks proud beside plain, weathered, Cinderella half-sister.  Snarling Nio, the finest I've seen, well-made up with smug oni beneath massive feet.  

Back in Nara, an explanation of directions from two young women, about whom J and I talk metaphorically, to find them following, within earshot but uncomprehending.  Post-dinner walk through rain to our hostel, no frills at ¥2400, a far cry from the $8 dollar palaces of New Zealand (which I had just visited a few weeks before.)  Having no towel, I dry myself on used linen, then turn in. Our old man roommate quiet but friendly, turns down his radio when my head hits the down, and he has the decency not to snore.

Next day, early bus to some temple in the mountains.  Confused quickly, get directions from a monk who looks just shy of a century old, his face a braille mask telling dharma stories that dance around a toothless grin.  How many years has this guy sat upon his cushion up here in the hills amidst the woodcutters?  In true Buddhist metaphorical fashion, J and I are told that we are standing astride the very path we seek.  Up into the trees, dampened blackened things which stand dense and tall, parting occasionally to allow glimpses of the village below.  At one point we are stunned to see a path of garbage extending down a hillside, no doubt the work of a single culprit, but the result is shocking, like a thin razor gash on the cheek of a child.  What the Japanese won't do to destroy their marvelous natural environment; they haven't a clue how to translate 'sustainable use" anymore.  

We drop now into farm land, tea plantations with hedgerows stretching parallel up the hillside like cornrowed hair.  A group of men stand chatting around a fire, ceasing briefly as they stare us by.  On through a village, with a souvenir shop at the far end.  Shortly after, the trail becomes a cobblestone road, dating back 1200 years.  As we descend carefully, the path slick with last night's rain, a creek leads the way past Buddhas god-knows-how-old, which appear on rock and cliff face. At the hill's base we pass through yet another village into the deer park proper.  

An okonomiyaki lunch and museum visit later, we're on a train packed with kimono-clad girls, to Osaka where we part ways.  I continue to a photo exhibit of Hollywood stars at work.  It's a shame when a gallery visit has the same mild impact as a glance at a book of the same substance.  On the way back to Yonago, run into G and C, who are painfully hungover, returning from Kobe and last night's Pavement show.  Oh, The Varieties of Gaijin Experience!  Its a shame that William James hadn't lived to write that title...

On the turntable:  The Allman Brothers, "An Evening with The Allman Brothers"
On the nighttable:  Irving Walsh, "Trainspotting"


Monday, June 10, 2019

Imbibling Bibliophile #70

  Saddled with Darwin by Toby Green
Naoshima Monogatari Pale Ale, Kibidote Brewery
On the turntable:  Allman Brothers, "An Acoustic Evening"

Friday, June 07, 2019

China Silk Road VIII: Tianchi

 I feel like I've been building up to this day for almost 30 years.  The initial idea of living in Japan would be the first stage in a long period on the road.  After spending a year or two in country, I'd go the long way home, back through Asia and Europe.  I fantasied about doing it all overland, and spent months at the old Pacific Travelers Bookstore in Santa Barbara, poring over their Lonely Planets and penning things in a little notebook, trying to figure out how. (I also once saw Pico Iyer speak there, and afterward he gave me a list of people to contact in Kyoto.  That list is long lost, but I presume a lot of names from my current community here would have been on it.)  I still have those notes, and one place in China stayed in mind:  Tianchi, or the Lake of Heaven. 

And the car was finally taking me there.  Part of the charm of Ürümqi is its modernity, the neon towers that wink at the high peaks that ring the city.  Sadly the road leading out to the east is pure industry.  Then we reach the mountains themselves, and the windows get rolled down to let in the scent of pine.  

Within the park we board a bus that wends up a twisting road that hugs a narrow river, passing small yurt villages as we go.  Here and there are waterfalls; here and there are pagodas.  Along the way, a bus conductress keeps up a rapid fire patter, as if trying to get it all in before we arrive forty minutes later.       It is a beautiful day at altitude, the expanse of the lake shiny in the sun.  We are tempted to climb higher, by ropeway up into the snows, but it feels right to simply stay here at 1900 meters, and follow the trails about.  We drop awhile to a waterfall that has gone dry this season, then loop back to the tourist viewing platform, from which we see plenty of tourists.  But they are easy to lose, and we keep our distance further along the lake.  

Bogda Peak stands at the lake's far end, and midway round is a Taoist temple that is supposed to be popular with Taiwanese tourists (who before today I hadn't known could visit the mainland).  Staring out towards it is a guy who looks like a Taoist wizard with flowing robes and long beard, sitting on a hill high above the water.  Through G's interpretation I find that he is on pilgrimage from Ninxia, and heading to the temple to train awhile.  

I move clockwise along the lake, across a series of planks that are miraculously attached to the rock cliffs.  Then it is a long steep slog to the steps of the temple proper.  LYL and G remain behind, and I have the place to myself, so sit and enjoy the quiet, watching the snow on the peaks melt in the warmth of the springtime sun.  I climb higher, to another temple hall further up, which nearly touches the ridgeline.  I imagine more trails extending along it, leading deeper into the park.  But I have to return, and nod to the wizard who has finally arrived.

After a quick lunch in a small lunch truck overstaffed by a dozen friendly and attractive young women, we again board the bus.  Most of the passengers sleep as we descend.  Outside is the same scenery as before, and what had been appealing and photoworthy on the way up has already been consumed. No need to pay attention anymore.  Such is travel in the social media age. 

Back in Ürümqi, we race to the Xinjiang Regional Museum, arriving not long before closing time.  The minority sections are interesting, with 3D representations of each of the region's many ethnic groups, but sadly there are no signs (in any language) telling who they are.  A local I suppose would know by costume and hairstyle.  The hair of the Beauty of Loulan too is impeccable, well-kept after 3000 years.  A photo of her reconstructed features shows her as olive-skinned, like a southern Italian.  Besides the mummies, the most impressive exhibit is the excavation work of a joint Chinese-Japanese team back in the 80s.  I could hardly imagine that in today's political climate.

We make one final stop, at the Erdaoqiao Market, which while rebuilt, is one of the best I've seen in China.  We wander the fruit stalls as our driver sits to play a traditional folk song on a fiddle.  It is lively at the end of the day, the market patronized mainly by locals.  (Tourists may come here, but they were nowhere to be seen.)  And our final use of yuan is at the Naan Museum, on a few of the many flatbreads for sale in the adjoining bakery

The breads accompany me the next day, as my flight heads east.  It is May Day, but the airports aren't too busy, most of the travelers on this holiday having gone the night before.  My stopover in Beijing brings me back to the modern world, with red wine and sports networks and international news.  The man referred to as the US president is mouthing something I can't make out, but with Mandarin interpretation. Probably something about new tariffs. His face, and the holiday, allows me to reflect on the parallels between him and Chairman Mao, two men of tall physical stature who seemed dead set on shaking things up, damn the consequence.  Maybe they ought to slap little red covers on the next edition of The Art of the Deal.

My Japan-bound flight is delayed, which allows me more time to ponder the similarities between the States and China.  I think mainly how all the news about the reeducation camps of the Uighur minority seems to have arisen in parallel with the worsen trade war, suggesting perhaps that news outlets are being encouraged to print anti-Chinese articles.  Not to say that these stories aren't true. But perhaps somewhere in the unreadable (to me) local papers that I pass on the way to my plane are stories of similar camps in the country of my birth, where immigrants are jailed in a similar desertified west.  We certainly live in interesting times.

On the turntable:  Love and Rockets, "Earth, Sun, Moon"


Thursday, June 06, 2019

China Silk Road VII: Turpan revisited

 While in the midst of repression, it is difficult to see much beyond your own personal experience.  Only with the removal of the repressive element is one able to see the overall scale of the repression itself.  So it was with the ever-present sand that had draped itself in the air around us for the past week.   And now, all I saw below our plane was a layer of brown that stretched from horizon to horizon.  As we traveled further north, the mountains I'd longed to see began to appear, until a vast array of snow-capped peaks ushered us in to the airfield at Ürümqi.  

While Ürümqi may be the city furthest city from the sea (3620 kilometers), the first thing I did back at the hotel was to hit the pool.  I longed to be immersed in water, to scrub clean all pores and orifices of grit and dirt.  Unfortunately, midway to the water I was accosted by the staff, who were trying to get me to purchase a swim cap.  With a brusque "Mei yo!" I hit the water, and during the few minutes it took them to get an English speaker, I slid beneath the surface, buoyant, knees slightly bent, arms wide like a crucified man.  

We met our guide early the following morning, who proved to be the best of the entire trip.  He stood out due to his height and unique facial features, of an ethnicity that was the Silk Road personified:  part Uyghur, part Kazakh, part Uzbek.  When we asked he where he got his excellent English he claimed to be a fan of "Everybody Loves Raymond."

The drive through Ürümqi revealed a city on the grow, with shiny towers and ribbons of overhead expressways.  The railway station was new and spacious and would have been at home in Japan or in any major European capital. I was amazed by the cashless nature to things, how everything could be charged through your phone to your Wechat, including vending machines and even the toilet paper dispensers in the restrooms.  We joined the orderly queues and boarded our high-speed train which then sped east, beneath the snowy Tianshan on our return to Turpan.  

As on the previous visit, we were pulled aside for a passport check.  Unlike the stressful experience we'd had the previous week, this one was pretty quick and relaxed.  Our guide G was easy through the whole thing, and appeared to know the security team.  We'd run into one of them later on his break, who joked and smiled and seemed like any other young man required to put on a public face while doing his job.

We met our driver D, a local guide who too had excellent English.  G asked us what we knew about Turpan, a neat trick that freed him from over-explaining things, and also freed us from the boredom of hearing things we'd heard before.  As we drove out into the desert, he and the driver told us tales and legends of the locals, as the Flaming Mountains rose outside the window, this time in hues of red which finally allowed us to fully understand the source of the name. 

The hills narrowed into striated walls cut by the run off of what must be ferocious rain storms.  The deeper cuts synced up with the low bridges along the road, which in turn were aligned with groves and fields on the opposite side.  (And later in the day we'd see that these too were in line with the pockmark of wells that formed the Karez irrigation system we'd seen on the previous visit, which had proven difficult to understand due to all the Disneyfication.)

The land flattened out, begetting crops and the little aerated huts for drying grapes.  We'd leave these to follow a rutted road out along a canyon, stopping a few times to take photos of a landscape rich with fantastic shapes.  There was a series of Buddhist grottoes at the far end, but these were now forbidden to visitors due to the crumbling nature of the cliffs above.  

The road dropped us in Tuyoq.  The locals here are known as the Auger, and I'm forced to rely on a truthful cliche when I say that there way of life seemed timeless.  We followed the narrow lanes around this beautiful village, past the crumbling old house where Albert von Le Coq stayed during his 1905 excavations of the grottoes, and between the small stands the local women have set up to sell their grapes and walnuts.  The entrances to the homes revealed covered courtyards within, anchored down by the massive platforms where an entire family could sleep during the hot weather.  Our walk was nearly truncated by a local policeman whose surliness and laziness fought for dominance, but G worked his soft magic on him, and we were finally given permission to climb up to the village's higher reaches, now crumbling and abandoned as the diminished population sought to live down below, before the hills began.

Lunch was long and leisurely, under the shade of poplars.  I longed for a nap afterward, but we moved back out into the sun, part the extended limbs of the karez to the ancient city of Gaochang, a 2nd century BCE garrison town.  Dealing with dates stretching so far into the past alters your perception of time.  At the beginning of this trip, in Xi'an, the 7th Century T'ang dynasty had seemed old. But now it felt recent when compared to the Wu and the Han that came before.    

Older even than Jioahe, Gaocheng sprawled across the desert, the earthen walls surrounding it a mere fleck against the snowy Tianshan to the north.  We traversed the site by small tram, being the only visitors but for a foreign couple who were probably regretting doing it by foot.  Abandoned in the 14th Century as it was, there wasn't much to see, mainly little towers of sand-colored bricks dotting the landscape. The only exceptions were a trio of temples and a mosque, though these too were taking great pains to hold their form.  The biggest temple would have been the size of a cathedral, and in its shade a old man bowed a spike fiddle ghijak, whose mournful sound resonated off the sand walls.  He had a couple of drums for sale on a carpet before him, so I accompanied him on one, playing a tune that we later realized was the Italian ballad, "Ciao Bella."      

Our final stop of the day was the one I was most anticipating, but the drive out revealed a site that was almost better: an old Japanese film set cut into the cliff of a steep valley.  But Bezeklik itself had the edge, in terms of history, and colorful paintings inside. (Sadly many others were removed by von Le Coq and later destroyed during the bombings of Berlin in the second World War.  Others were damaged by the Uighurs themselves.)  While the frescoes (in caves 16, 17, 20, 27, 31, 33, & 39) had their own charm, the atmosphere was the real highlight, set as the grottoes are along a cliff face that opens out to the towering peaks to the north, under kiva-like domes which somehow make it look like the Anasazi ruins of the American southwest.  

We had an hour to kill until our train back to Ürümqi, so we stopped for a beer and some kebabs in a shaded courtyard ringed by the drying houses for grapes. One of these had a variety of raisins for sale, and I was amazed at the array of flavors that the fruit can take. (Less surprising I suppose if we shift the context to that of wine.)  Burdened thus with a few kilograms of the fruit, we returned to our hotel, to meet a bizarre spectacle of a Russian fair, complete with balalaikas and spinning blondes in tight, colorful costumes that looked pilfered from the wardrobe of Snow White.

On the turntable:  Allman Brothers, "Shades of Two Worlds"
On the nighttable:  Tim Severin, "In Search of Robinson Crusoe"          

Monday, June 03, 2019

China Silk Road VI: Khotan

We left in the dust of morning, heading south, until the road angled east back toward Dunhuang, beginning to close a loop.  Before long was Yarkand.  Our original itinerary had us visiting a pair of mosques there, but unknown events had closed the city to foreigners.  Looking up the wide main street from the highway, I saw no barricades, only a quiet town going about its business on a quiet Saturday morning.

Aside from a set of dunes on the city's far side, the rest of the drive to Karglik was along a string of fertile oases.  Almond and walnut trees took advantage of the natural irrigation.  We detoured through town, passing what appeared to be an entire community laying ground for a new sidewalk.  We reached a road junction just beyond, and had we turned right, a two-day drive would have brought us back to Darchen and Mt. Kailash, where we'd been almost a year ago to the day.  

We faced our only real checkpoint of the day outside the town of Guma, and with momentum thus broken, we stopped for a simple lunch.  Before setting off again, I visited the loo out back, basically a bamboo shack with a short drop into a slow gurgling stream.  As I did my business, I noticed movement down and to my right, and was horrified to be looking over an old woman squatting in the stall beside mine. Her eyes were turned up to me, apparently as surprised as I was. It was only then that I remember that many Muslims don't stand up to pee.  

 Beyond Guma, the desert returned with a vengeance.  Overturned and burned trucks were the modern day equivalent of the dead caravan animals from the old tales.  Cars blasted along, throwing up dust in their wakes, which swirled like snow.  The roads though appeared relatively sand free, the grass grids that lined the roadsides very successfully holding the desert in its place.  At Kunyu, a new city was being built almost overnight, with hundreds of apartment buildings being stamped into the earth.  I'd been amazed at the numbers I'd seen earlier in the trip, but this was on a scale unbelievable. All the shining white blocks reminded me of Ashgabat.  I wondered at where the hundreds of thousands of residents would come from.  

The map showed two routes into Khotan, the one from the west through a number of small towns that could only exist as oases, along what would have been the old Silk Road.  But our driver chose the other route, mainly by default, after a great conferring with maps and with our new guide. I'd silently debated earlier whether to suggest the western route, but had said nothing, figuring they'd have scouted routes that would best avoid the checkpoints.  But I was now sure that they didn't know where they were going.  And I stewed, reconnecting with my usual anger at drivers who couldn't even accomplish the only job they had, which is to get us from A to B.  And the silent anger found another target in our guide, who in being unprepared, had cheated me out of seeing a segment of the old road.  

Instead, we got another hour of empty desert, then a long security stop.  LYL and I actually entered the police station this time, as two men and a single women were segregated into cages behind us.  In the riverbed beyond, figures could be seen scrounging the stones for the jade that made this town famous.  In fact, one of my goals in visiting here was to replace the jade necklace that I'd had for the past 22 years, which had broken on my kitchen floor last autumn. I then returned the shattered stone to a riverbed, tossing it from the Marutamachi bridge into the Kamogawa flowing below.  

But a more pressing need was food.  The Friday night food market was a short walk from our hotel.  Dozens of stalls lined what must have once been an airplane hanger, and in the aisles between, families and young couples walked slowly, enjoying a meal out in the cool of evening.  

In hindsight, the food market would prove the highlight to the trip to Khotan.  A visit to the Rawak Stupa was a close second, though the feeling of remoteness I'd been seeking in this sole remnant of a 1500 year old Buddhist kingdom was diminished by the boardwalk that now ringed it, and by the grass grids pressing in from all sides, as prevention against again losing the stupa to encroaching sands.  Flies buzzed my arms as I strode the planks around the site, a mingling of DNA with all the great explorers who'd visited a century before. 

I'd hoped to visit the gravesite of an old Sufi imam, but the site was now off limits and rumored to have been destroyed.  A pleasant alternative was a visit to a silk workshop in a village nearby. Grapevines crawled across arched trellises  in order to keep out the sun.  I'd seen a couple of these over the boulevards of Turpan, but only from my hotel window above.  Here we could walk through them, or look down a row to see how it framed a home, a courtyard.  At the end of one, a man chopped at a brick wall with an axe.  

The modern city itself was overdeveloped, many of the new buildings apparently empty.  Looking at the unlit windows of blank facades from the hotel was like looking across the array of empty eyesocket-like caves of the Buddhist grottoes.  And like in those canyons, dust hung over everything.  The only real color were the children in their uniforms, entering schoolgrounds through gates well-fortified by heavily armed guards. It depressed me to think of the kids growing up like this, and it saddened me more when I thought that this too is what the Republicans envision for American children.   

Sunday was market day, and the reason we came.  We dawdled away the morning in our hotel, awaiting our new driver who had been recommended by our guide before he returned home to Kashgar the previous night.  As we waited, I realized that we knew nothing about him, or the dodging looking friend who accompanied him.  As they turned away to load our bags in the car, I took a quick photo of the license plate and the profile of their faces beyond.  It turned out to be a moot point, as one of them never left our side.  He spoke neither English or Mandarin, but helped us get past the checkpoint into the market.  

Where nothing at all was happening.  I'd read that this market rivaled the famous one in Kashgar, yet had no tourists.  Kashgar, I found on our visit last October, wasn't at all bad.  And maybe the reason that no one came to this one is because it sucks.  Where Kashgar was charming with its grid of narrow lanes housing a variety of stalls and shops, this one was like a shopping mall in the American Midwest.  And one failing economically.  Most shops were for those ubiquitous workout uniforms, or clothes for children, or for a menagerie of wedding dresses in a rainbow of ice cream colors.  We walked around awhile in disbelief, then settled in at a fast food chicken place, swinging in these weird playground chairs and hoping things would perk up later.  Bizarrely, after getting on wifi I wasn't able to find any of those articles I'd read back in Japan about things to see here.  

I felt defeated.  Never had I failed so miserably at finding anything of interest, and I had to concede that the whole enterprise was a miserable failure.  We made a halfhearted attempt at wandering the adjacent streets, which were slightly more interesting, but by then our standards had fallen pretty low.  The city museum, supposedly good, was in the process of being moved, and thus closed.  So we decided to head to the airport, four hours before our flight out.  And I suppose in that lies the bucket list aspect to Khotan, as a place that one never need bother oneself with.   

On the turntable:  Blur, "The Best of Blur"
On the nighttable:  Ernest Hemingway,  "Winner take Nothing"

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

China Silk Road V: Taklamakan

As expected, sleep was elusive, and oft broken.  At some point, needing to take my prostate for a walk, I stumbled around the carriages, finding all the toilets locked.  I awoke a porter to open one, then returned to my bunk, the light spilling around the closed curtains as the train pulled into Korla, a onetime great Silk Road city that the guide books tell me has lost all its former charm.  More than Genghis Khan, or Tamerlaine, or any of the other invading forces, the greatest destroyer of the old ways (world-wide) was the 20th Century, and its myth of progress.    

We are again given the morning to sleep.  A player piano echoes noisily through the marble lobby of the hotel.  It is far too early for this.  When we depart later, the heat is up.  The ride out of Kuqa is through a landscape that could be Arizona, high spiky mountains that abruptly thrust themselves upward, as if trying to escape the dry earth.  The intricate patterns of their spires could only have been carved by water, though in an area devoid of rain, this would have been formed by ocean currents when this entire region had been underwater.

Sadly we are given a little too much time to admire them, as we three times sit a long while at police checkpoints.  This is the road to Bai, a region closed to foreigners, and security is tight.  It is a pleasure then to eventually walk beneath the shade of poplars to the ruins of Kizil Grottoes, past the statue of the old Buddhist translator Kumarajiva, a bright black mass against the dull brown of the cliffs behind. The site is far more run down than Magao, and the staircases steeper, as they run up and down the rock face like a faded Escher print. We are led through a number of caves (Caves 34, 32, 27, 8, 10, 17 to be exact) by a young woman who is obviously disinterested in her job.  She'll immediately turn to her phone every time our own guide translates her explanations.   The frescos in Magao had been grander, but these shine with much more color, are more vivid.  It is little wonder the area had been so badly vivisected by the German Albert von Le Coq and the American Langston Warner.  Le Coq got in there first, and sadly a lot of what he carted away was destroyed by the Allied bombing of Berlin four decades later.  This of course provides fuel for the argument that the artifacts shouldn't have been removed in the first place.  But another of the caves had served in the early 20th century as the hermitage for a Chinese man who initially found inspiration in the European explorers who studied the place, then later shifted to a more patriotic point of view.  He left behind a treatise on the wall of one of the cave, railing at what he perceived as theft and plunder.  Yet how did he fail to see that in covering an entire wall with his own scribblings, that he too was contributing to the damage?

What should have been a three or four-hour excursion became eight due to all the checkpoints.  It is approaching 8 pm, and I decide not to go to dinner.  I'm beginning to dread them, for they start far too late, and the ordering process never fails to take 45 minutes, as everyone's preferences are given far too much attention.  Granted the food tends to appear quickly, but it is never that good, and the volume far too much.  While traveling rough, I tend to skip most evening meals, but on this trip I hadn't been able to opt out until now, mainly because the days go late and we eat before returning to the hotel.

And partly, I want some time to myself.  I am enjoying the group, for Wild Frontiers clients tend to be well traveled and well read, but I am tired of being around people all the time.  LYL decides to join me, which of course is fine.  We drop into a supermarket across from the hotel, careful to dodge the scooters that negotiate intersections by using the pedestrian crosswalks. Not far off, I spy a construction worker with a T-shirt written with, "It's not OK." Hidden political message?  As I ponder this, I exchange a smile with an old Uighur gentleman, who bounces his grandchild in the front seat of a car.

The supermarket is the basement of a larger department store, and while my wife buys tea, I fiddle with musical instruments next door.  We buy a few simple things for dinner, but fail at our attempts at finding ice. Earlier in the day I was given a can of beer by our guide, and I want to chill it.  Being told they don't sell ice (and why would they?), we ask if we can take a scoop or two from the racks that ice fish.  As is always the case in China, more and more people get involved in the discussion, and after a great waste of time, we are inevitably told no.  In the end, I raid the ice bucket at the buffet back at the hotel.

We eat and relax in our room, as the sky darkens outside. A sand storm is blowing in, but the people on the streets many stories below don't see it at first.  When it finally hits, the streets clear quickly.  I open the window a smidgen, and a gust of sand blows in my face.  What I don't know at the time is that the storm and the sand will remain in the air for the 
next six days.

It is of course there the following morning, as we wander the ruins of Subashi, a name that sounds Japanese to me.  We trace a simple loop, around a half dozen tall crumbling walls.  It would be more impressive if we hadn't see the far more expansive Jiaohe a couple of days before.  Yet another section of the city beckons, a crop of low ruins silhouetted against the low hills across the river, the haze enveloping them contributing to the mysterious allure.   

Later, we take a quick walk along Rasta street at the center of town. (Not a dreadlock in sight.) We are unable to visit the mosque, of course, but it is a pleasant walk down the main road.  The shops and homes have colorful and ornate wooden doors, and the area is not what I'd call lively, but functional.  People go about their daily business.  This is nice to see, for up until now we've occupied ourselves mainly with monuments.  Mid-walk, the police arrive for the predictable passport check.  Our cops are friendly, yet at least four police vehicles roll slowly past before they are through.

There is a small market at the far end of the street, and I set off alone to find a place to pee.  I walk up a grubby alley to an even grubbier courtyard, following a sign for the toilets.  The men's is closed, and I consider the women's for awhile, worried about what kind of cultural issues might arise if I'm caught in there.  A woman sweeps nearby, and I ask multiple times in my halting Mandarin if I can use it.  She ignores me every time, then finally locks the door, dismissing me with a curt 'Mei yo!" as she walks away from me.  Such a terrible attitude, but one somewhat understandable.  Xinjiang is not a very relaxed place.

The rest of the trip never return to the heights it reached earlier on.  What followed was a two day drive through the dust.  The sand storm had narrowed the visibility to that of a pinhole camera, and I never got to see the Tianshan mountains rising dramatically to the west.  But this time in the desert allowed me a new appreciation for it.  Though I'd spent many years in New Mexico, I never really noticed how such a harsh environment could be purposely acculturated, how man is able to shift the landscape to meet his needs.  

Likewise, I also began to pay better attention to the sand itself.  I hadn't realized the vast number of colors that sand can take.  But it was the shapes that truly captured me.  Looking at them for hours and hours, one began to see the surface of the sea.  Waves and dunes took the same form, shared the same principles.  It brought to mind an almost Thich Nhat Hanh-type query: in looking at dunes, does one see the shape of wind, or of the earth?  And at waves, the shape of wind or water? 

The high security meant too that activities were limited, which added to the claustrophobia.  Not only was there nothing we'd be allowed to visit, but we couldn't even leave the hotel apparently.   You get what you pay for I suppose.  We'd wanted to travel the Silk Road, and we were, getting warts and all.  Still, things were a lot easier going for us than they had been for most of the old route's history.

The highlight of the final few days was the camel ride outside Makit.  Here too we faced a compromise, for we'd originally been told that we'd ride them out to a campsite for an overnight in the desert, but that had been rescinded earlier in the tour.  (It made more sense once we drove out there, passing a large reeducation camp a few miles away.)  We disembarked our vehicle to a scene right out of Mad Max, of souped up dune buggies parked at all angles, and a variety of characters sitting about with a vaguely threatening look. And in the midst of it all were a quartet of traditionally dressed old-timers, oblivious to all but the ancient tunes that they played. 

Not far off were a pair of umbrellas made of thatch and tree trunks, which reminded me of payottes.  But lazing beneath them were not topless French sunbathers but our Bactrian camels, whose harnesses and saddles made them looked partially clothed, as if wearing the  little vests of Mongolian wrestlers.

It was pleasant to ride in the fading heat, the breeze and the jingle of little bells the only sound. A pair of young camels ran alongside, darting beneath the harnesses and trying to get to a female who must have been their mother.  As they ran their flaccid humps flopped back and forth like the happy tails of puppies.  It took some time to find a comfortable way to sit, but eventually the body adjusted to the motion, from which it was easy to see why they are called ships of the desert.  I rode with my feet kicked up on either side of my camel's neck, but when they climbed or descended a dune, one had to hold on for dear life.

A number of our team had opted instead to ride out in dune buggies, as did the musicians, who then set up to play us a few of the old songs.  We sat on carpets before them, drinking warm beer that I was both used to, and sick of, by now.  One musician came out to dance, trying to entice others to join him.  I too took my turn, the only male to do so, but then again, this was a culture very divisive along gender lines.  I tried to follow the best I could, dancing in what could only be described as disco dervish. But the frenetic motions could have been because of the biting sand fleas.

The night finished up with a farewell dinner of sorts, since LYL and I were setting off alone the next day.  I'd prepared a limerick for the group, inspired by the town in which we'd pass this final night, and by the police who seemed so worn down by the place that they couldn't be bothered to stop us for security checks:

There once was a town known as Makit,
Whose charm was that of a shit bucket.
While most cops are great sports,
At checking passports,
The ones here appear to say fuck it.

On the turntable:  Krishna Das, "Pilgrim Heart"

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

China Silk Road V: Turpan

The drive to the station wasn't supposed to take so long, maybe ninety minutes.  With the road under heavy construction it took closer to five hours, the vehicle rattling and vibrating violently every time we'd enter the earthen bypasses that ran parallel to the bits being repaved.  At the end of the year it will all become moot anyway, with the extension of the Bullet Train to Dunhuang proper.  The town, long synonymous for remoteness, is certain to undergo dramatic changes.  I think of the quote that Donald Richie uses as an epigram for his Inland Sea: 

"I hear they are building a bridge 
To the island of Tsu. 
To what now shall I compare myself?"

But not just yet.  The mounds of graves are scattered across the desert, Muslim, with the tell-tale poles stabbing at the dry air.  There are also Bactrian camels, marshlands coming into color, and the 2000 year-old remains of a Han section of the wall, topped with ruined watchtowers.  

We are moving into Xinjiang now, at close to 300 kph.  The pre-boarding security check is extensive, and will be the first of many.  Just after Hami, the first stop within the province, a trio of SWAT officers give a thorough check of our passports.  In what will a repeating pattern, they at first assume LYL to be our guide, until our English guide steps forward.  (He prefers that the two ethnic Chinese in our group pretend not to speak Mandarin, but there is no ignoring their obvious Han facial features.)  Upon arrival in Turpan, we are pulled aside for a very time consuming check, with the assistance this time of our local Uighur guide.  The pair of Canadians traveling with us are especially concerned, as two of their countrymen have just been convicted of spying in China, and now face the death penalty.  

The guide decides that we'll eat near the station, since it is nearing 9 pm.  The food takes a long time and isn't especially good, so I decide to wander off to the adjacent shop.  One commonality seems to be the flak vest and riot gear piled near the corner of the shops (a commonality I'll soon find throughout the entire province.)  Turpan is a grape growing region, and they imported winemaking over 2000 years before from the Romans (whose genetic descendants populated a now-vanished town not too far away), so I decide to buy a bottle to try later.  

We begin our day at the ancient city of Jiaohe.  On the drive out, I notice through the poplar trees a community of low, whitewashed buildings that remind me of the desert cities of Rajastan. Jiaohe has a surprisingly similar look, though now abandoned for close to 700 years.  A small tram brings us closer to the site, startling a venomous snake cooling itself in a puddle of water formed from the runoff of a gardener watering not to far away.  

We pass the morning wandering the ruins.  There are a few other tourists around, but they seem to favor the central lane leading to a viewpoint.  LYL and I in turn circle the old city along the perimeter, and generally have the place to ourselves. I've never felt this close to being an explorer, finally finding the isolation I've been seeking throughout the entire trip.  The long straight lines cut between what had once been two-story structures, and the whole place reminds me of a bleached out Pompeii.  The similarities end with the ruins of Buddhist temples, one of which still has a pair of headless Buddhas cut into small niches.  We make it to the far end of town and its cluster of crumbling pagodas, before looping back to sit beneath a shaded trellis and cool ourselves with watermelon and ice cream.

Turpan was one of the places I was most looking forward to, but the way the day is structured disappoints somewhat, the sites we visit minor, and at a doddering pace that suggests we're killing time.  Lunch is fun, in a lively little spot with a vibe like we've crashed a wedding reception.  But afterward we drive 30km just to take a single photo of the Flaming Mountains, at the wrong time of day.  We make a brief stop at the Emin Minaret, which is an admittedly impressive figure of ornate tilework, but the climb to the top is now forbidden, and the mosque which it punctuates has recently been secularized.  And the final stop, and the old karez wells, is a joke.  The photos and dioramas intrigue in their presentations of what looks like a series of aligned anthills crossing the landscape.  But the location is overbuilt, of an false and packaged beauty, the subterranean canals lined with neon blue tubes more often seen in sci-fi films.  The space allotted to jade shops is greater than the attraction itself, in what is probably the worst tourist trap I've ever visited.  I am happy to get away.  

We arrive at our restaurant to find it will open late.  Luckily there is a park in the back, so we hang around awhile, polishing off the three bottles of wine that myself and two others have provided.  It proves so awful that I can barely make it through a single cup.  Luckily, dinner is better, but I limit myself to a few lamb kababs.  This, and the ubiquitous pilaf, will show up at every meal from here forward.   

It is a long drive through the dark to the nearest train station, though luckily there are no checkpoints, though the staff at the station will try to make up for it.  The station is in a small dusty town whose features remain hidden in the dark, and we are forced to queue outside in a wind growing in fury.  A gang of older Han try to push past us, and LYL does a pretty good Great Wall impression, loudly scolding them for their behavior.  The chaos continues until we get inside to the crowded waiting room inside.  Both our guides have been pulled aside by security, so I step into my guide role, rushing back to them to get our tickets, then have everyone settle in. I am anxious because the schedule board doesn't show the train that corresponds to our tickets.  When our guide shows up, he tells me that no, not all of them appear.  Naturally, another train to the same destination is leaving at a similar time (though with a different number), and despite what we've just been told, the guide suddenly hustles us aboard.  A less than pleasant build up to a hot and uncomfortable passage.  

On the turntable:  Kimio Mizutani, "A Path through Haze"