Sunday, June 30, 2019

Sunday Papers: Geoffrey Wolff


"Language, or more properly, grammar, is the obstacle that blocks the path of anyone ambitious to fit within the skin of a cultivated Frenchman. English is a language in which literacy is achieved by the expression of a huge vocabulary, through the interstices of a loose and easy syntax. It is a language that prizes evolution and surprise, one that requires curiosity and diligence rather than the kind of compulsive analysis and repetition by rote that French children--to their later, greater glory--are obliged to suffer. In all languages, the illiterate may be recognized by their ignorance of approved syntactical arrangements, but in English, once grammar has been absorbed, only vocabulary and perhaps accent distinguishes one speaker from his "inferior." 

But in French, grammar is a tyrant. It is monstrously difficult, & within its labyrinths are hidden all delicacy and sense, all meaning, all purpose, everything we think of as literature. The grammar of literary French is not available for appropriation by an adult. It is the reward for a childhood nightmare in which the simple thread must first be unraveled from a tangle, and then again and again. French writers come from the unassailable elite whose mark of class is its linguistic style." 


On the turntable:  Lambchop, "Is a Woman"
On the nighttable Geoffrey Wolff, "Black Sun"

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Sunday Papers: Henry Rollins


"The real punk rock in America is bebop."


On the turntable:  Lee Perry, "Arkology"

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 that 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 instead at Higashi Kanagawa.  I'd assumed I'd be immune to such things after 25 years, but no 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 body of Richardson 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 that 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 massive scale of the wartime bombings, which destroyed over 40% of the city in just an hour.  Today, the apartments discharge housewives who make their way to the local stores as they open.  The only evidence of the old are the historic signs, which appear with surprising regularity. I forget sometimes the richness of Yokohama's history, and make a mental note to return to explore more deeply.

The newer residential areas have metal posts that 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 nearby barrier gate, erected to prevent the wave of anti-foreigner violence that accompanied the incorporation of the first consulates.  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 that 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 hosted a trio 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 moving across Japan's second largest city.  At some point I pass an old building standing where the Hodogaya honjin used to stand. It is not of an Edō vintage of course, probably early Meiji, with nice wooden framework, a 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 the pack animals who suffered on their way up steep hills. And as expected, those same hills soon 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, Chile.   One 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 mystery 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 eventually rewarded with an Italian lunch, which I spy by accident on my GPS.  The shop is a 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 next glass isn't much better.  Looking around again at the shop I 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 around it is ruin.  The Tokaidō adjoins here the busy 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 too busy to walk on, and the adjacent 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 houses set back from the highway, surrounded by high walls and completely overgrown by vegetation.  The only beauty I see is the color of 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 historical 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 suppose 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 darken 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 Yasujiro, 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, with Chigasaki  the midpoint, and therefore a good place to stay.  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 hanging 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, coaxed 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 our love of 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, the bottle gradually moving 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"