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. 
Alas... 
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"

     

Thursday, May 16, 2019

China Silk Road IV: Dunhuang



As I'd expected, the weather in the morning proves clear.  We drive out of town along a narrow belt of the highway that traces the Hexi Corridor, accompanied for a good many hours by the snow covered array of peaks to the south.  The view to the north brings with it the odd ruin, or the remnants of a village long abandoned to the desert, which had by now taken a full hold. I spy a dirt track, and muse that this is what the Silk Road would have looked like in days of old; barren ground tramped flat by the passage of hundreds of camels.  Eventually wind farms appear, and not much later, an oasis of sorts, large rectangular patches of green.  A look at the map confirms that there is indeed a river nearby.   

The driver was contracted to take a long break every four hours, so as the rest of the group pokes around a series of stalls selling dried fruit, I shoot a round of hoops with the husbands of two of the shopkeepers.  Whether heat, elevation, time, or age, my skills have deteriorated considerably since the playing days of young adulthood, and it took at least a half dozen shots before I even found the rim.   

A later stop of lunch, across the road from an old stone wall that was probably part of the western extension of the Great Wall.  What we'd visited the day before is referred to as the Wall's western end, but sections of an older Han period wall can be seen through the rest of the drive to Dunhuang.  Even in their wind-worn state, the wall proves the highest feature in this barren land.


The Mingsha Dunes that follow are nearly as barren, mainly camels, and tourists, and sand.  LYL and I pass the copious souvenir stalls for a quick visit to Crescent Lake, then I begin to climb the dune, grateful for the footholds provided by a rope ladder laid over the sand.  A number of other visitors are climbing partway up in order to toboggan down a section that has been set up specifically for this purpose.  What frustrates is having to detour around the slower climbers when they stop to take yet another selfie.  But I don't really mind the worst offenders: a pair of women wearing the flowing silk T'ang period veils and robes, who make for a splendidly colorful vision against the yellow sand.        

Atop the dune I sit awhile and turn my gaze away from the tourist circus below, allowing my eyes to trace the curves of the sea of dunes beyond.  There aren't too many people up here, but I never fully escape the noise, can never fully sink into the feeling of remoteness and isolation.  Marco Polo referred to these as the singing sands for the sound they'd make underfoot, but in his day that must have been the song of the Fat Lady, for the show is over, the sands sing no more.  

I enjoy a gravity-assisted run back down the dune, to rejoin LYL who I had spied from above.  We sit awhile to await the rest of our group, and nearby a group of dancers in traditional T'ang clothing spin to recorded music.  They don't appear to be an organized attraction, probably a group of young women enjoying a bit of cosplay.  

After dark removes the heat from the day, we leave our spacious hotel for dinner in town.  Tonight's digs are nice, the best we've had so far.  I feel bit cheated in how little time we'll get here, and in Dunhuang in general.  I would've enjoyed a visit out to the ruined Jade Gate, and perhaps a visit to the old film set built in 1987 for the Japanese film Tonko.  The town too looks pleasant, one of the nicest in China.  

But my only real experiences with it revolve around meals. A photo in the restaurant shows that Sammo Hung, though it doesn't mention if he sampled the donkey penis on offer on the menu.  Our own group settles for different parts of the animal altogether, washed down with yet another warm beer.  Breakfast is too pleasant, taken in the cool of morning on the terrace that faces the dunes.  


I sneak in a quick stroll in the hotel garden, reading the array of photos which explain a little of the Silk Road's history. Then we head out to experience the real thing, the Magao Grottoes.  Our local guide has very good English, and she leads us to eight or nine of the caves, namely those with the bigger Buddhas or more important artifacts.  I sneak a quick photo of Cave 17, whose vast number of sutras were taken to England by Aurel Stein at the dawn of the 20th Century. The most important of these was of course the Diamond Sutra, dating from 868, and now at home in British Museum.  While quite a few Europeans passed through Magao around that time, it is Stein who is painted most as the villain, the words commonly associated with him being 'thief.'  And conversations regarding him tend to polarize, showing where one stands on the subject of whether these sorts of cultural treasures belong to mankind, or to the culture that spawned them.    

Regardless of how you feel about China's ever-changing relationship with its history, I am impressed with how well they were looking after the place today.  Visitors must travel in smaller groups, and those group are staggered upon entry.  This prevents overcrowding within the narrow caves themselves, but also allows one occasional moments alone to feel the space of the canyon itself.

This aloneness is something that I feel is sadly missing in the current climate of hypertourism.   As one who loves history, I travel not so much to engage a place as much as to engage time.  Yet the crowds never fail to tether me to the monotonous and mundane present.  It is almost better to stay home and read about an imagined past, than to expend great effort to actually visit and be let down.  



On the turntable:  Keiko Matsui, "Wildflower"

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

China Silk Road III: Binglingsi & Jiayuguan


    
We pulled out of town in the early morning.  The streets were quiet, but I did once again see the town's lone beggar, a Muslim fellow who'd popped up all over the place the day before.  While I'd been surprised to see him, I wasn't surprised at his solitary status, as both Muslim and Tibetan cultures are quite proud, and rarely take to begging.  

In the lowlands again, I noted the crops had been plowed around the graves of ancestors, ancestors who'd once worked these same plots themselves.  Down further into Linxia, along a broad boulevard that paralleled the Hongshui River, which we folowed out to where it fed Liujiaxia reservoir.  A high speed boat like a pirogue on steroids jetted us into a narrow canyon carved out by the Yellow River.  The river's curves began to be framed by yardangs: tall, imposing fortresses of rock commonly seen as a backdrop in the films of John Ford.  That they rose here from the water was even more cinematic, particularly up the narrow canyon that had hidden for centuries the Buddhist caves of Bingling.  

Having been ravaged by waves of invaders over that time, many of the 1500 year old caves were flooded with the coming of the reservoir in 1969. It is claimed that the treasures from the flooded caves had been moved to the existing sites.  I found this hard to believe, as the dam had been constructed at the height of the Cultural Revolution, a time not particularly sympathetic to history or any other non-revolutionary idea.  And I was prevented from climbing to the higher caves to confirm this by a security guard who thought it clever to charge foreign visitors $50 US for the privilege of doing so.  Unfortunately our guide, the one person who might have gotten us through, was away, occupied with sorting out a lunch order that was made far too complicated (and in the end, we all got the same bowl of noodles anyway).  Still, I enjoyed strolling past the Buddha caves down at river level, particularly the massive, three-story seated Maitreya, which held a prominent presence up and down the canyon.      

We'd later meet the Yellow River again in Lanzhou. The river is infamous for the quantity of its silt, which has constantly reshaped its course over the centuries, drowning millions in floods in the process.  (Chiang Kai Shek too did his part, destroying a dyke in 1938 to stop the invading Japanese,  which drowned 800,000 Chinese peasants.)  The bank atop which we walked was silted to the height of a two-meter berm, pitted and pock-marked and quite uneven.  Despite this, it functioned like a park, with kids running around, and old men flying kites.  One kite had gotten entangled in the line of a ropeway, though not enough to impede the trams that drifted laconically across the river and back.  LYL and I opted instead for the old Zhongshan bridge, built in 1907 by German engineers based in Shanghai, and the first bridge to cross the Yellow River along its entire 5,464 km length. I honored them with a bit of engineering of my own; skipping stones across the water in an act of flood prevention, a piecemeal attempt at returning some of the silt to the riverbed.      


Then it was time for the overnight train.  I'd only ridden two during my six week trip in 1997, before settling on the more cozy overnight buses.  But this would be the first time I'd travel in soft sleeper class.  The melee to board was certainly gentler and less intense than on my last visit. And the compartments weren't too different than similar trains in Europe, though a bit smaller and certainly hotter.  The fan spun lazily and futilely, though the white noise it created was just enough to ensure sleep, albeit one frequently broken.  Luckily, we were given the morning off to catch up on the missed sleep. Wishful sleeping, for the hotel "bed" was probably the hardest surface I've ever slept on.  And I've camped on concrete. 

The overcast weather of the day cheated me out of my longed for views of the Jiayuguan section of the Great Wall, which marks that  monument's extreme western end.  The snow-capped Qilian Mountains were barely in sight to the south, though the jagged Mazong to the north looked more imposing than this fortress, which hadn't withstood the barbarian invasions anyway.  But it did prove an impressive display of might, though one rapidly being overwhelmed by tourist kitsch, with all the drums and kung fu displays.  (Yet a peanut seller had a voice that overpowered them all.)  There were a few too many tourist groups for my liking, with their tacky clothes and selfie sticks waving like halberds.  Most annoying was the piped in music.  Photographs of the fort imply the end of the earth, and for centuries, poets have represented the place as a metaphor for loneliness.  Why is it so hard for the modern world to allow us a moment to perceive some of this for ourselves?  Why has it become so difficult to find a little quiet in the world?  


 Luckily the tour groups don't do the climb up the overhanging wall.  Here I could finally get off alone, to climb and muse and gaze out at the solitude of the desert. (But for the booming of the artillery maneuvers going on further out, complete with tanks and mortars and towering plumes of exploding dust.  Far more intimidating than any old wall.)   

I wonder how the modern day will be represented in 1800 years time.  Will it be as vibrant as the paintings in the Wei period (220-65) tombs in nearby Xincheng?  These were one of the most impressive sites for me in the entire trip, each painting done in the space of a single brick.  They presented somewhat as comic strips, detailing daily life of the time, a large majority occupied with the preparation of food. (Some things in China never change.)   These bricks stayed with me long after I left the subterranean tombs, particularly when I lay back across the unforgiving surface of my bed back in the hotel.   


On the turntable:  Keiko Matsui, "Moyo"

Friday, May 10, 2019

China Silk Road II: Xiahe



 The train first took us to Lanzhou.  The bullet train was a far cry from the old days of rattling through the countryside in a sleeper bus.  Now the landscape raced by.  Hexagonal towers rose above plots of sorghum, framed by snow-covered peaks farther off.  The villages huddled together as if conspiring, all elbows with their jagged pitched roofs and corners.  The scenery on the train was similarly interesting, the never-ending videos playing techno porn about the wonders of this very line.   

Lanzhou was a quick blip of a hotel and another impressive Provincial Museum, Gansu now.  A mosque stands with minarets like rocket ships.  A sign for Huian dentistry, deftly working the character for "ease" into the name.  The city is shadowed by dry hills to the east, with pagodas and temples on the crest.  It is only later that I note the ropeway.  I also spy the Apsara Hotel that Bill Porter riffs on in his book on the Silk Road.  Another, The Friendship Hotel, begs a TV sketch where a traveler enters and asks for a room and is told bruskly to piss off. 

On the road out of town, the low, deforested hills began once again to present themselves, the sole exception being the dwarf pines that were nearly as tall as the tombstones that they were expected to eventually shade. An old women poked about amongst the rocks and sand. I'm not sure what she was after, but sparse vegetable plots added a bit of green to the dried canyons and riverbeds.  Villages were dusty rectangular affairs, where old men sit and chat or play cards.  What I first thought were Mao suits and caps turned out to be the traditional wear of the Dongxiang, Mongolian Muslims who are thought to be the descendants of Genghis Khan's troops once stationed here.    

As a person with Irish blood, I appreciated this road, which continued to rise with us.  The land grew more fertile, and mulberry trees began to line the roads, and apricot blossoms added color to the hills clinging to the remaining brown of winter.  The greatest crop appeared to be Islam, for mosques seemed to be everywhere, the minarets towering over every village, ofttimes more than one.  

As we climbed higher, the Muslims eventually met the Tibetans.  Closer to the hills were the tell-tale stupas and gompas, with prayer flags adding trim to the ridgelines above, or draping the guardrails of the bridges that crossed fast-moving rivers.  Trucks climbed slowly up the passes, their beds loaded with steel for some immense project, crawling past lonely police outposts, always with a basketball hoop beside.  An alleviation of boredom I suppose, in a lonely posting.  The mountains beyond grew rockier, with a fuller coat of snow, and the river ran more wildly in its bed.  One section had been rechanneled to allow for construction, and where the diggers dug lifted too the scent of the desert after a sudden rain.          

We reached Xiahe and the plateau upon which it rests.  It was unmistakably a Tibetan town, though the farmers working the perimeter covered their heads with the caps of the Muslim.  LYL and I took a stroll around town, passing familiar facial features and clothing, the women wrapping their monochromatic robes with colorful aprons.  Ruddy faced children raced about, kicking a soccer ball.  Dogs slept in the road, as they do.   And the air chilled with the coming of the evening. I truly love Tibetan culture.  Has it only been a year since we were last among them?


The following morning we walked in the warm sunshine toward Labrang Monastery, spinning tall prayer wheels that line the earthen walls.  We passed the morning poking in and out of the various halls, led by a monk with somewhat wonky English.  When he and the group exited each hall, I'd sneak in three full-length prostrations, my breath coming fast due to the altitude and the strong scent of butter lamps.  It all culminated in a long sit in the main courtyard, as the entire monk populations chanted and rocked back and forth, their yellow hats adding an unintended chorus line affect.  Where the hats tipped forward betrayed a dozing monk. The higher-ups had the build of yaks in their thick robes and burly shoulder pads. One fellow paced the roof as if secret service.    I'm not sure how much time passed, as the whole thing had a timeless air too it, the accompanying meditative state coming about quickly, and the peace that usually follows.  Then it was called to an end by a blast of horns from the roof above, the monks then filing into the hall to eat, the rush of maroon robes like the flow of water through a drain. They were followed closely by the laypeople who climbed past all the discarded boots to pile food and cash atop the empty cushions beside them.  The chants continued from the inside as we wandered off to lunch of our own.  


The rest of the day was spent out on the Sangke Grasslands.  There was little out there but horses, yaks, and a couple of yurt villages for Han tourists.  I'd hoped we would walk more, but we merely climbed a rise to a lone prayer flag, and later wandered out to the clustered homes of nomads.  One family invited us inside, where we took butter tea beneath the glass walls and ceiling, looking more like a conservatory than a typical home.  Having achieved the desired thermal effect, a bed was at the front of the house, with the darker back half reserved for cooking, eating, and the usual prayer room.  It was pretty idyllic here, a sentiment echoed by our hosts, who had reached an age where they no longer want to be nomads, and have chosen to leave the yak herding to the younger generation.  Better to settle in and potter in the garden, whose vast expanse stretches on and on.   
      
I eventually got my wish for a walk, up a steep hill overlooking Labrang.  The sun was warm and I wished to doze in the grass, but night would come soon, and being over 3000m, so would the cold.  A day after we left, it would snow, the feeling of timelessness continuing, as spring settled back into winter.

I can only imagine the isolation that this place would bring, as remote as it is.  Our two nights were spent at the Nirvana hotel, a pleasant place run by a friendly Dutch woman.  I talked a little with her about her 15 years here, and she said that she doesn't much think about it as it is simply her everyday life. A sentiment shared, I think, by all expats.  She was only one of two Europeans living in Xiahe, and I was surprised to overhear that she wasn't aware that the other foreign woman had recently taken a trip to Cambodia.  They must not get along too well.  I am reminded of George McCartney and Nicolai Petrovski, the only two foreigners in late 19th Century Kashgar, yet in their roles as consul for the two primary participants in the Great Game, shared a profound antagonism for one another.  


On the turntable:  Kevin Seconds, "Heaven's Near Wherever You Are" 
On the turntable: Joseph Conrad, "Victory"

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

China Silk Road I: Xi'an



To follow any ancient historical road in the modern age feels a cheat, as a journey that once took an entire year (Xi'an to Kashgar for example), can be done in less than two weeks.  But certain hardships can remain.  My own flight to Xi'an was four hours late.  Hardly life-threatening, but a less than auspicious start.  Still, the delay allowed me time in Tsingtao to sample a pint of that city's eponymous beer. It was my first Tsingtao on tap, though its bottled imports had once served an important role back in university, to wash down the sumptious sushi dinner with which friends and I would celebrate the end of our final exams. I suppose the auspices were there after all.

Xi'an welcomed us at night, on a slow drive over the construction zone that will become a new subway line.  A massive statue to the northeast marked the site of the old Han capital.  The parameters of the T'ang capital which eventually followed were well defined by high walls marked with impressive gates and watch towers. These were rebuilds of course, thought the dimensions of the city had stayed the same.  But more changes were ever-present, none more so than the James Joyce Coffee shop.  And the laser show and decorated dancers as night fell was the ultimate welcome, seen from our hotel window that overlooked the auspicious South Gate.  Camp as it all was, it brought out the T'ang flavor of the city, as well as the Silk Road to soon follow.      

Morning broke and we set off early, first to the tomb of Xuanzang, located in Xingjiao Si temple to the south the town. (In looking up Xiangjiao Si I came across the expression XingJiao Ni, or "Fuck You!" in Mandarin.)  The drive out of the city wasn't terribly impressive, beneath haze like fogged glass, and past the usual domino towers of a burgeoning Chinese city. But a reward came with the picturesque countryside, as we moved through fields and villages reminiscent of my long travels through China 22 years before. Despite the hardships of that journey, it oddly made me want to return.  The temple was set on a low hilltop before crumbling cliff, composed of a series of interconnected courtyards with circular doorways, and the tell-tale squat brick block that is the Chinese temple.  It was quiet and pleasant here, with the sun streaming through the trees and bamboo, and the birds chanting their morning sutras.  Here was the stereotypical old China.

We found Xuanzang at the far end of the complex, his resting place marked with a tall thin pagoda of baked earth. A family was offering incense at an opening at the southern end, which forced them to bow low as if in supplication. And Xuanzang certainly deserved that respect, being a man whose T'ang Dynasty travels had taken him to India and back, from which he returned 15 years later laden down with sutras that he'd spend the rest of his life translating.  I too bent my knees before this intrepid traveller, in a fitting start to our own trip along the Silk Road.    

Our next stop back in town served as an overlap of sorts to a previous pilgrimage of mine.  Long before he undertook the Shikoku pilgrimage best associated with him, Kukai spent a year at  Qinglong Temple, learning from the Chinese priest Huiguo the tantric practices that would form the heart of the Shingon sect of Buddhism that he'd found upon returning to Japan.  The temple was now set in the middle of a large park, one known for the sakura trees gifted by Shikoku's four prefectures as a show of friendship in 1985.  Being the end of the season, petals littered the grounds, which were alive with carnival rides and punters enjoying a warm spring Saturday.  A stele on a small rise stood to honor Kukai, just above an old brick hall that served as a modest museum, housing scrolls and books, and a display case dedicated to the Shikoku pilgrimage.  There was another memorial in front of the temple's main hall, in the form of a new-ish statue of Kukai bowing before his teacher. They sat side by side within the hall itself, equal in status and stature.  

Another temple followed, this one the Taoist temple of the Eight Immortals, Banxia Gong.  Our driver was a little confused due to recent construction, and asked a local for directions.  This old man man knew immediately, saying all the foreigners seemed to be going there.  (I debated introducing him to the Lonely Planet phenomenon.) The temple was down a quiet alley lined with fortune tellers.  The interior courtyards were likewise quiet, but for a handful of locals going about their worship.  We too strolled about the courtyards, poking in to see the tall deities with their lavish clothes and beards far bushier than the wispy chins of the priests who sat reading below them in their exuberant caps and robes.

The sky was clouding as we arrived at the Forest of Stele, set upon the broad courtyards of a former Confucian temple.  It was aptly named place, where rows of rows of stele filled the exhibit halls well into their dusty dark corners.  A number of men were busy doing rubbings, tapping away a white substance with mallets most often associated with gongs.  Being a busy Saturday, the crowds were here too, but they seemed little interested in the underground display of beautiful Buddhas taken from the religious oases that strung the Silk Road stretching west. 

But my personal interest was in the stele with the Nestorian cross, dating back to 781.  Kukai had arrived soon afterward, and it is interesting to speculate on any encounters he'd have had with Christianity.  I've spent time looking into this, but have never found any scholarship that would expand upon it.  Contrarily, there is plenty of speculation that he'd drawn more from the Zoroastrians, whose fire-worship may have been a factor in Kukai choosing the sun Buddha as the central deity in Shingon (which also meshes nicely with Shinto's sun goddess, Amaterasu).

We left the museum to stroll a shopping street, done up in an old T'ang style that was less touristy due to their absence.  Women spun noodles in the front window of one shop, so we settled in as the rain increased, the hot broth taking the edge off an afternoon rapidly growing cool.



 
When we pulled away from the hotel in the morning, it was as part of a group, again with Wild Frontiers.  This day too we began with a monument to Xuanzang, the Dayan Ta (Big Wild Goose Pagoda) having been built to house the sutras that the monk brought back from his travels.  The grounds were busy with visitors, as was the interior of the pagoda itself, but I moved amongst them as I wound up the staircases to the top. People crowded the low windows found at each cardinal direction, each now covered with plexiglass with a small hole cut to the circumference of a smart phone clenching fist.  

The views were of a city sprawling toward me.  But I had to say that this developing China impressed me, in regards to how it had changed over two decades.  The streets were clean and free of litter, and recycling bins were everywhere.  Each corner had a fleet of rental bikes that could be cheaply borrowed with a quick swipe of the Alipay app.  (I'd earlier spied one old uncle sitting atop one, getting his morning exercise by pedaling backwards.)  

But not all of this modern China proved to my liking.  The city to the north could be considered a forest of stele in its own right, to be joined soon by similar patches to the south and to the west.  Huge swathes of the city looked abandoned, row after row of older apartment housing of a lower height cordoned off and falling into ruin. No doubt these are soon to be knocked down, to be replaced by even more of these domino towers.  I thought about how lucky I was to travel when I did, and see the end of what Asia once was.  But then again, when I had walked beneath these same type of older apartment houses back then, had I found them beautiful?   Had I even noticed them at all?        

I returned to earth.  Old men were flying kites, young kids chased blown bubbles.   (I thought how the only time you see a Chinese person smile is when they are with their grandchild.  Or maybe when a foreign guest does something foolish.)  There were more crowds in the Shaanxi Provincial Museum, and though I'd find myself frustrated when I'd turn away from a display to find myself hemmed in, it was a worthwhile stop.  Nowhere else would you find so many Silk Road riches standing beside treasures of the T'ang. Though pots and the bronze mirror grew redundant after awhile, the little clay figures were interesting and incredibly numerous.  I instinctively gravitated toward the Buddhas, the oldest dating back to the 4th Century. These would be the oldest I'd yet seen.   
 
There was a quick stroll atop the city wall (which I hope to explore more thoroughly by bicycle next time), then the day wound itself down in the old Muslim quarter.  The mosque was very much a Chinese temple, courtyard begetting courtyard begetting courtyard.  The mosque itself at the far end was a beautiful structure of painstakingly-carved wood, and covered with painted Arabic script.  The floors beyond the open doors were filled with the striped blue of cushion, and judging from their number, could host the needs of a sizable Islamic population.  

The market itself was quite bustling, not touristic per se, but mainly with local Chinese out for a pre-dinner bite.  The stalls themselves were inevitably manned by Hui, tell-tale in their oval white caps.  Most of them are young, barely above school age, and looking more like the Han, and less than the Uighur, as I'd come to expect of the Muslim in China.


The road east led of course toward the Terracotta warriors.  The forest in the hills above had long ago been denuded, and the new regrowth was coming in in strange patterns like a weird hair transplant. Maybe it was the water up there, the Huaqing Hot Springs where Emperor Xuanzong enjoyed watching his concubine Yang Guifei bathe, and 1200 years later Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped by his own generals to force him to partner with his Communist enemy against the Japanese.  In either case, things didn't turn out so well for the nation, history undergoing odd twists and turns like those same trees.  

One thing that never changed was Qin Shi Huang's tomb, the round mound untouched even by Red Guards due to superstition.  It is well known that his now famous army was  found by a farmer digging a well.  I don't know if in doing so his luck and fortune grew any worse due to his mistake, though I presume it didn't get much better as history doesn't recall his name.  Perhaps he was the old man I passed in a wheelchair souped up like a chopper.  

The Terracotta Army stood where they always had.  Or nearly always.  We tend to assume that they were found standing at attention, but in fact two millennia of shifting soil pressed upon them, shattering them into random bits.  All the king's horses and all the king's men were put together again, by a team of very patient archeologists.  Shards of others still lay scattered at the bottom of long trenches.  And more remain buried still, awaiting their call of duty, as cannon-fodder for the flash of millions of smart phones.


On the turntable:  Keb' Mo', " Keb' Mo'"
   


Monday, May 06, 2019

(untitled)




Fresh faced paddies
Newly flooded.
Already harvesting clouds!

On the turntable:  Billy Idol,  "Vital Idol"

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Imbibling Bibliophile #71



Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
Hickey the Rake Pale Ale, Wylam Brewery

On the turntable:  Blue Oyster Cult, "On your Feet or On your Knees"

Thursday, May 02, 2019

(untitled)



Legs too long at rest,
Beckoned to roam
By the springtime sun

On the turntable: Fleetwood Mac, "Rumours"