Siam I Am

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Siam Chronicles 26 - Beijing in the Spring, an End to the Thing

In Xiahe on the Tibetan Plateau ...
... it was one AM, and a group of Tibetan nomads were camped outside our window drinking and singing. The man's voice was shoddy and raw, the woman's full and cascading, a waterfall. Both were wild and ululating like birdsong. I was trying to sleep. At two AM a man whom I pictured to be old though I didn't bother to look was practicing his whistling on the doorstep of our hostel. He imitated birds, but mainly he tried for a certain high note again and again, a series of shrills. I was still trying to sleep. At two thirty AM a couple crashed through the dark, freezing hostel and had a blowout in Tibetan. They adjourned for a quickie then resumed the fight, cawing for hours. I gave up trying to sleep. At five AM I was up preparing to take a taxi to the bus to the train. The bathroom was covered in blood and cigarette butts smeared into the grout overtaking a blue tile floor. There was a black bird on the window ledge, hiding in the dark before dawn, but the naked lightbulb cast a glint across his beak, a pallid streak over the long, thin instrument, orange with a cruel curve. I was washing my hands in water like ice, fingers numb, thinking about the sky burial grounds ringing the town and this bird, its beak, and the purpose it had evolved to fulfill.

The Train through the Gobi to Beijing...
... was long and our car was host to a refluence of businessmen in sheer gray socks jawing at their cells in loud tones. We were assured it would be an interval of between 21 to 27 hours, it evened out at a middling 24. We got into Beijing groggy, unfocused, and flowed along to an unknown locus, automatically keeping my elbows on point and my teeth bared to gnaw through flesh. It turned out to be a taxi stand. Huzzah. We got in, showed our printout of unintelligible filigree to the driver, who grunted and made a gesture with his head, half nod yes, half shake no. We were headed for Paul, a friend from college whom we'd lived with in SF. After many attempts at dialing him with a Zimbabwe country code on our cell, I corrected my error and handed it to the cab driver, heard some tinny slants of directions being delivered, and settled back into the pleather seat to watch people in red sashes sidelined by rush hour waving flags with smiles like lunettes in their sooty faces. I thought that they were some sort of Communism pep squad, but it turned out they were the new bus courtesy bashaws, teaching passengers to wait in line, let people off, and keep a cool head while stepping onto the vehicle instead of trampling each other in a mad squash like crazed rhinos which is the usual procedure. I applauded both their effort and their optimism with a golf clap from my removal. We were eventually let off at a gate in an apartment complex. NYC has 8 million people, Beijing has 15 million at a conservative estimate. So when I say apartment complex what I mean in this context is a city the size of Luang Prabang, filled with its own markets and zip codes. We called Paul and handed the phone to the baffled but bemused security guard, between the two of them they ascertained where in this plentitude of population we were and Paul shuttled out to collect us. Seeing one of your best friends after three years is a moving experience. Seeing them loping down a street in a loud Polynesian shirt to rescue you from Beijing is even more so.

Paul's 29th Birthday ...
... was the very next day. We had stayed up the night before with his good friend whose finacee had dumped him, drinking until the unhappy fellow puked under the table. I felt this was a solid step in his recovery process. Paul and I retired to his dusty apartment and continued drinking excellent scotch. When I say dusty, I mean it here. I don't know if you've been keeping up on China and its peripatetic grime, but if you haven't let me tell you that there are toxic yellow dust storms blowing in from the Gobi that leave four inches on a car an hour. This is reality for Beijing.
Enough of dust for us, let's move on to the next day. It is Paul's birthday, we've not enough sleep but adequate. We go to the Forbidden City, Tienammen Square with its hundred paper kites streaming in lines, then out for sushi with a big group of expats, who are lively and interesting. The restaurant is covered islands in slick honey wood built over a koi pond, linked by arcing bridges. Afterward, we walk to a bar to sit under umbrellas in the rain and drink bourbon. We again stay up until dawn talking.

The Summer Palace ...
... is a sprawling complex with a marble boat, a lake made by many men with many shovels, and an endless parade of buildings, each with a grandiose name. The "Temple of the Purple Dragon Cloud with the Seven Heavenly Attributes" looks exactly the same as the "Chamber of Harmonious Aroma Perfection" which is suspiciously similar to the "Palace of Eastern Dawn Rising over Serpent Mountain." In fact, when we reached the "Bronze Pagoda" we were almost disappointed to see it was in fact a pagoda built out of bronze.

At the Foriegner's Hospital ...
... the doctor was saying that in all his years of practice he had never heard of anything like the symptoms I was relaying. He said with a thoughtful moue that he had no answer, and that when I went back to the states I'd be pounced upon by some eager thing who would try to make their name by identifying an affliction wrought by living in the jungles of Laos PDR. He tented his fingers under eyebrows that fanned out like palm trees and said his advice was to just pretend nothing was wrong and to tell no one, especially not a doctor - just hope for the best. This is always comforting to hear from someone in a lab coat.

The Great Wall, Mu Tian Yu, ...
... is our last stop on our last full day in Asia. We are at a secluded section of the Great Wall that plashes through mountains pouring into the sky, the fat bumblebees hum and bump lazily into my head, the flowers are blaring roulades of white with a sweet clean smell. Alex is contemplative, ready to mull over the magnitude of our stay and its implications. The pinfold of hawkers lining the path up to this solitude has obliterated my ardor. I am not festive, the uneven steps slicked into the ground look like nothing more than traps for my ankles, I kvetch until Alex whips around, perched on the wall at the top of the world, and says he wants to reflect on his last year and this is a great place to do it - the Great Wall after all.
I remit but can still think of nothing but going home, not home to Paul's dusty flat, but home to America, to a home I don't have. I entertain visions of a kitchen with an oven. In this fantasy I have a paper delivered to my very doorstep that is in a language I recognize with alacrity. I can turn to anyone and say "Those jeans look awesome with your butt," or "Do you happen to know where I can find a 24-hour woodworking hotline?" and get a response I can decipher, if not understand. In this fantasy there are burritos and chihuahuas. I am at a wonder of the world and all I can think about is leaving it. Small steps - get down the mountain, get past the people who grab you and throw you into tables, get past them. Get to the parking lot. Find that lady who insisted on driving you. Find that lady, get in her car, wait as six people are piled into the car with you. Smile politely at the 40 kilo man on your lap. Make it to the bus stop. Extricate yourself from the car. Pry yourself from the claws of the woman who is suddenly charging more money for no reason and jump onto the bus as it lurches off. Breathe in through the nose as the rest of the passengers laugh and laugh and laugh at you for over an hour. I just never get old. I'm like Peter Pan.
I pack when I get back, I do it calmly and with great care. I don't betray myself. My desire to return to the oblivion of custom and courtesy is checked like a greyhound at the starting gate.

The Flight Back ...
... was unthinkably tedious, taking a full day and a half. There were three layovers, I got no sleep. When we got into JFK I felt I was stumbling through Eden - everyone I passed had a different ethnicity, it was a spectrum of shades and sizes. And they were so damn nice. Yes, go to China for awhile and then NY seems like Jollyland by comparison. Even when our flight was delayed and we were rerouted through LaGuardia, everybody was so kind about it I could've kissed each of their many hued toes. I almost cried. Really.

An End to Things ...
... I guess happens now. We're in Cleveland OH, after a stint in Charlotte NC, Washington DC, Philadelphia PA, Boothbay ME, NYC, Boston MA, then onward through the midwest, and then the west coast. I don't have the culture shock I thought I would, I only have three boils bubbling up on my consciousness.
First, the people here are more amicable than I had remembered, and this is absolutely true when put into the cultural centrifuge. We may be a bunch of dolts as a whole, but at least we're a friendly bunch of bumblers.
Second, this is a super rich country and everything is way more expensive than I had considered possible. Even the squirrels are fat and complacent; I picture them twining together SUVs out of sticks and running up their credit card debt on pointless appliances and extravagant coffee drinks.
Third and finally, the grass IS greener but on both sides of the paddock, and after listening to a hundred drifted conversations that I can actually interpret, I realize that I'd much rather not know and make it up as I go along.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Siam Chronicles 25 - Mongolia by Plane, Gobi by Train

Zombie City

We arrived in Chengdu, and everyone was staring at us. We made our way with testudinal aplomb to the hostel right next to the bus stop. I thought we must make a sight, though we carried less than other backpackers, our burden still took on comic proportions. But after we had dropped off our things, showered away the dust that makes your hair snap under your fingers like a bundle of twigs, and changed into more urban attire, they were still staring. I couldn't understand it, we'd just come from the remote south and no one afforded us more than a bored glance. But here, the capital of Sichuan, a huge humming city, people just couldn't get over us. When we stepped forth the crowded street ceased all motion like someone hit the cosmic pause button. It was super weird. I had previously reserved this level of scrutiny for a ten foot albino in a tutu or someone whose face was half elephant. But even stranger was the intensity of the fascination, they'd be bustling by, a hundred things to do, then sight us. They'd stop to gawk a half an hour, an hour, two, as if they had nothing better to do, all prior commitments forgotten. Perhaps many babies were born without the presence of a father because two seedy capitalists were in desperate want of monitoring. That night we cozied into a traveler's restaurant in the rain, it was cheerful with posters of Jazz greats and leather seats. We were both a bit weary of the spicy tofu that had been our fare for days, it was the only thing out of the phrasebook that was not all chicken bone with bits of vein and fat. We ordered burgers and beer, there were rats that displayed a marked affection for people and an obese cat snoozing who seemed to have a truce with the vermin. It was alright. I noticed with interest a fellow whom I took to be an American as he was wearing a baggy sports jersey from some Florida team - I can't imagine why anyone would willingly advertise the state that elected Dubya unless they were from there. He was a gorgeous man with ebony skin, features cut into fine angles, clean shaven, tall, hair cut close. Alex and I both had the simultaneous thought that if our level of scrutiny was uncomfortable, for him it must be unbearable - he was only the fifth person with very dark skin I have seen in my year in Asia. As he paid for his beer and got up to go, a woman in a business suit on a bicycle did a double take and almost crashed into a dumpster. I went back to my book, after a while I was mulling over a passage, so I glanced out the window to the churn of the city. Sheer terror. A sea of faces pressed against the slick glass, gawking with open mouths. It was literally like being in a zombie movie.
This dread was intensified the next morning when we took the bus to Huanglongxi, a riverside village from the Qing dynasty that looks like it was sucked out of time in a state of perfect preservation. We were set to spend a few hours, but curtailed that notion as soon as we got off the bus. It was a city of zombies. And they were all wearing floral wreaths around their heads, like fat chain-smoking zombie fairies. They performed that synchronized cessation of sound and movement that by now was both so familiar and so disturbing, then followed us, shuffling slack-jawed. We took up evasive action, darting through cobblestone closes to dodge the horde, but then everyone in the alleys would literally drop whatever they were doing, their mouth would go slack, their eyes would widen until they bulged, and they'd come shuffling after us too. I've had this nightmare before, many times. Circular streets that go nowhere, houses leaning so far forward on spindly strands of wood that look like they've been woven by spiders closing in, and a zombie horde at our backs. They're moving slow, but there's nowhere to go. We looped and plunged through the old town and ran up as the bus was pulling out again, jumped on, and were safe with just the six zombies on the bus, who spent the whole hour and a half clustered around us, not saying anything, just staring, staring, staring, unblinking.

The Outer Edge of Inner Mongolia

We got a plane ticket. We flew from Chengdu to Urumqi, which is half a continent away, equivalent to flying from Kansas City to New York or from Prague to Moscow. Why? I had my reasons.
Urumqi is one of the poorest parts of China, and certainly the most remote, bordering what Alex calls the Stans: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It is mainly Moslem, with a populace called the Uigar, largely coming from the Stans and speaking their own unique language, which is like a mix of Arabic and some Eastern European dialect - I could make out some from my deplorable Czech. Urumqi is also in the middle of the great Taklamakan Desert, and a few hours from Jiaohe, an extensive ruined city that was one of the great centers of the silk road. I wanted to see Jiaohe, I wanted to see the Uigar, I wanted to take a train through the Taklamakan desert into the Gobi. So we went.
We hadn't intended to stay in Urumqi, which by anyone's standards is a as appealing a week dead skunk. But it was the biggest city we were likely to see for awhile, and it had real hotels and banks and stuff. We'd been getting up at five AM for over a week, and the real reason we stayed a night is we were just plain tired. We needed some rest. So we stayed. Urumqi was like Mos Isley on Tattoine, a crazy mixture of cultures with a feeling that anything might happen, in the middle of a vast desert on the edge of another even vaster desert.
Urumqi looks like God spent a few hours vomiting up cinderblocks. We ate at a Pizza Hut, the second time we've had fast food in a year, only it wasn't fast food. It was a real fancy restaurant, with waiters and tablecloths and mood lighting. It was like stepping into an alternate fast food reality. We made our way from there through blocks of people selling an endless variety of raisins and nuts out of stalls to the Islamic quarter and the mad bazaar. Men with non-Asian faces in round white caps, flowing robes, beards and round glasses debated with animation on the steps. Women with non-Asian faces wore head scarves and covered their mugs with a pound of band-aid colored foundation, so thick it cracked like mud in the desert and huge chunks fell off and shattered into the pavement. Their eyes were covered in black gunk, like a raccoon, and their lips were universally bright red. There were beggars everywhere, wearing burlap sacks over their heads and hands. A few women had a wheel-barrow with them containing a child draped from head to foot in gauze like a mummy, except over a massive suppurating wound, glistening red and full of pus and flies. These were pulling in the most money, and I wondered if they inflicted these wounds on purpose. They had fists full of yuan, it is the custom of beggars in Inner Mongolia to display the day's take. For whatever reason, I found the huge piles of money discouraging for my donations.
The signs were all in Arabic, Cyrillic, Chinese, and Mongolian. Some had befuddling English insertions crammed into them too, but few speak English in China. After growing up in DC and mocking Japanese tourists in America, I now get why they go in huge tour groups. I now have much more sympathy. Going into a bus station where your language is totally foreign and pointing at a word you've carefully crafted onto a napkin can not substitute a conversation, especially if there is any complication, like the bus is full, cancelled, delayed, or there are no longer any buses going anywhere ever again because the bus station has been renovated into a full time brothel. Or perhaps the attendant is just having an unfulfilling day - we've all had those moments even in America where we have to cajole, whinge, flatter, truckle, and finally tease out a ticket from a surly agent. This is difficult when the gamut of your conversation is "Hello" "Thank you" and "I like beer." Luckily for me, I married a man with a sense of diligence, and he has been learning Mandarin at an accelerated rate. He usually pulls us through most scrapes, and has the added benefit of a beguiling smile. When his three weeks of Mandarin fails and his shy grin doesn't do the trick, I am ready to step up to the plate with my sheer donkey-headed obstinacy, willing and ready to divert everyone in the district to my indefatigable purpose. Language or no, I can make myself perfectly clear. We make a good team.

It was a strange night, this far north the sun sets at eleven PM or so - we didn't stay up to see it, going to bed in full daylight. We woke up the next morning at six AM to full daylight and got on a bus to Turpan. I've seen a number of deserts, one in Spain, the rest in America, and each was utterly different from the other. When I was a kid I was a voracious reader of novels, and I have held a romantic candle for the wasteland my whole life. I had expected every desert to be the same - I guess I thought they would all be the Sahara, a beach of massive dunes without water. I've never seen the Sahara, and I've never found this ideal. But none have disappointed, and the Mojave with its yellow flowers and purple mountains still tops my list with Donjana and Death Valley a close second.
The Taklamakan is an atrium of gray pebbles under walls of granite crusted with snow. Although entirely natural, the grayness of the rock seems almost industrial. But the way to Turpan was full of round buildings like breasts, yellow sand structures with a window slotted into the daub, marking cairn graveyards. It has its charm.
When we arrived in Turpan we were immediately overtaken by the garrulous hospitality of a Uigar man named Mama John. His features were Russian, but his hair burnished a flick of red, and his big face held the tan of the desert - Turpan is the hottest spot in all of China. He drove us to our intended hotel, modeled in Arabic arches and curves, smiling and laughing as he demonstrated his command of six languages - Uigar, Mandarin, English, Japanese, Korean and Russian. He asked nothing for the ride to our hotel, and I commissioned him to take us to Jiaohe later that day. Until the designated hour we walked through the grape-vine arbors of the city streets, taking delicious mutton pastries sublimely spiced from the carts and devouring them until I got one the special one filled with gristle and rancid grease. We made our way back and entered the white coupe to Jiaohe. There was a TV show in Uigar playing on a tiny flat screen embedded in the passenger seat sunblind. I had never seen anything like this before, but my attention was quickly diverted to our surroundings. When I finally noticed that our driver was watching the show, no eyes on the road, while he was simultaneously talking on his cell, no hands on the steering wheel, I ferreted out the seat belts from the black pile of gunk and strapped myself and my husband into the macramé cushions.
I felt like I was back in Turkey, with massive mountains and vineyards to each side, and people in full white Islamic robes walking under the sun. But the streets were packed with donkey carts. My favorite animal, my totem, is the donkey, the ass, a cross between a horse and a bunny with big fluffy ears and a singularly irascible disposition. I love the few that can never submit. In my past, present, and future, I am an irascible ass, this is my pride, this is my downfall. But a perfect existence if I can get a few choice head kicks in before I'm put down. Jiaohe was like a huge sandcastle city.
Yellow on cliffs between palm shaped rivers, the whole place was built of sand, water and hay. Although the signs told me not to touch in comical terms that required a certain amount of inference, the empty expanse of Flinstones style structures left me at the great temple pushing my thumb into the five hundred year old wall. It crumbled under the slight pressure, agreeably, as if wanting you to go to work on the rest of it, pressing the ruins into the ground. I wondered with real interest how this city of sand and hay could have stood for so long, how I could be walking through perfect arches set in such a friable medium. I thought the striations of rich tan sand so delicate in the fine blue ether might plummet into lumps at the merest sniff of rain.
We left after a bit, not running the whole gamut of the empty sand town on top of the cliff because I was feeling lazy. We eschewed the aqueduct agricultural theme park, and ended our journey at the Minaret. It seemed very new, elaborate but simple in classic Arabic design, true to religion no grand center point, and ours was just to wander and not offend. I risked offending when we found a ridiculously massive hand-made broom in a corner, and I inveigled Alex to grab it and pose for a photo. He did, its tines were long as a hog, this was truly a Minaret sized broom.
When we got back there was some consternation, as we asked to be dropped off at the only place in town that the guidebook prognosticated English fluency and travel advice. We ate there, spicy lamb that was mostly fat but delicious nonetheless, and sesame seed flat bread. They told us how to make our train, it was simple. We should just go there in the morning at our leisure, there would be no problems. Fantastic. As we were finishing up our meal, I noticed that Mama John was waiting for us, suddenly vulpine in his white coupe, and I couldn't eat any more. I felt a bit sick, we were such pigeons. Overall we had done an adequate job of not being pigeons and our whole year had cost us about a hundred twenty dollars total in stupidity levy for being cozened by shysters. But the truth is that we were sick of it, and the sight of this new vulture made me incredibly weary. As we walked out, he folded into a wall of shining flesh, and we told him that we just wanted to use the internet. This had been a problem for days, there is no functional internet in much of China. He ferried us from one place to the next, not taking no for an answer, until we found a dingy corner that was semi-online. At this he left, taking a fallacious promise from Alex that we would call him tomorrow for further excursions. But really we soon left, children swept singing in our wake, walking back to our seamy hotel at the ready to leave at five AM for another bus to the train to take us east to the Gobi.

Nameless Town
We took the bus as promised, no problems. Our problems started at the train station of an entirely Islamic burg in the middle of nowhere. When we got to the train station, after much jostle and feints at complete nonchalance we achieved the ticket counter. True to form, everyone coming in swarmed up and tried to push us out of the way. We had time, we waited until there was none about when Alex made his gambit. It didn't help. I don't care what anyone has to say, China is an incredibly rude country as a whole. There is a line in the sand where a single person waits at a lonely ticket booth in an empty station. The drive that pushes a man in a shabby suit with folds for a face to cram on and push this person out of the way mid-transaction is the divider between that which is reasonable and the fantastic sprigs of psychosis. So the patient discourse of Alex was continually interrupted. When Alex finally achieved some breadth and dearth he found that the next train left in ten hours. We had to wait in this nameless town for ten hours. Alex was tapped, it took all of his strength to jockey for interlocution. I was drained just watching him fight in that cavernous station, all squeaky shoes and echoes, but I took the lead, and forded to a close hotel where we could drop our bags for the long wait for the train.
We watched two movies entirely in Chinese, and I made up my own dialogue, read a few hundred pages of my refrigerator-sized novel, we ate even more spicy tofu. Those hours were introspective.

Gobi Express
The train through the Taklamakan and Gobi took 22 hours, 18 of which were awesome. We got a private car with soft beds and flowers. Out our window the biggest sand dunes in the world whizzed by in tan and red. The dining car was full of just staff, who all crammed in the booth with us to exchange English and Chinese lessons. This included the cook, who was incredibly dirty, with sooty hands and nails fulsome with filth. He was super drunk the whole time, and around midnight, after the sun had finally set less with color than in a slow drain of light, he and the assistant cook got into a wrestling match. Then a man came in, making a big scene, screaming and hitting the tables with his fists. The staff had to drag him away. We decided that was enough for one night, and turned in.


The Labrang Monastery at Xiahe is the third most important Tibetan Buddhist site in the world. The town is chock-a-block with Tibetans, wearing their hair in braids and their robes bundled over one shoulder, belted in piles with brass circles. The smell of yak lard is all pervading and Alex and I are learning Tibetan. We're staying in a traditional house with a big common room, and last night I got to drink too much whiskey and talk to a young man who was born here. He told me that this whole area used to be Tibet until 1959, when the Chinese came and murdered everyone, destroying all the temples as they went. He himself had fled a decade ago, going 48 days over the Himalayas to India on foot with a group of monks, eating nothing but barley flour in water. They had to walk only at night, the way is lined with corpses, they barely made it. Once he got there he studied with the Dali Lama. He comes back to see his family, and he's been thrown into a Chinese prison four times, each time tortured. His open face turned thoughtful, his eyes dimmed a moment, and he said that this may be the last time he comes back, his body has gotten so weak from the electrocutions that his nose bleeds almost constantly. He looked away for a moment then laughed and invited me to breakfast - barley flour in water.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Siam Chronicles 24 - Through the Window Pane, Busing the Tibetan Plain

We've spent 36 hours on a bus in the last four days. Alex has drunk Lama spit. We've eaten every part of a yak. We've braved our way up the backbone of the Tibetan plain from Shangri-La to Chengdu by bus.

8am: The cab taking us into town from the airport smells of stale cigarettes and is adorned in prayer beads jangling from the mirror and pictures of the Dali Lama plastered to the windshield - not a good sign. We book past sky burial grounds on the yellow reach of flatland, colorful prayer flags whip in the wind, under the purple shadow of spreading mountains shouldering the cobalt sky. White stupas bellow incense clouds ringed by innumerable cairns, and I shiver in my thin sweatshirt as the tangy smoke claws through the ill-fitting window, borne on a wild wind shrilling the chill from the snow cambering down the peaks.
9am: I am trying to stay warm in the belly of the local youth hostel in Zhongdian. It is full of flags and covered in graffiti on the dark stained wood. The central fire is close with smoke and fleeting heat, the windows shuddering in the artic blasts. Alex is cradling a tall clear glass filled with hot water and chamomile flowers - fresh yellow blooms floating on top exhaling a sweet smell, their petals drifting like snow through the steaming liquid, refracting a lovely slip of white light on the worn wood table. I am eating a thick slab of homemade bread, it is sweet and flaky, dipping it into a fried egg and spearing a dab of salted ham. Occasionally I stop to savor a sip of warm milk, freshly squeezed from the yak tree, rich and thick on my tongue.
12pm: I am wandering through old town, which is under massive renovation. Workers in tribal garb carry stones big as a mule between them on a rope in a swirl of wood chips. The streets are close and circular, with rough hewn cobblestones thick and irregular under my feet, slick with wear, it is difficult to tread. The buildings are immensely beautiful, rich amber or chocolate wood, all intricately carved figures and patterns on lattices, painted in primary colors at the seams and overhung with thick curtains in bold black and white designs from which the scent of wood smoke tendrils out into the sharp mountain air.
3pm: I am in a honey wood room, warm by the fire, the floor is covered in vivid rugs, the walls are strewn with reckless bolts of deep color. Through the window pane I can see the gray cobblestone road tilting crazily up and down the hills like an Escher painting. I am taking my first bite of yak. I have yak dumplings in yak soup, Alex has yak stew. It is rich, indelibly unique, and delicious. We glut, then sit and read in the blue winter light that never leaves this altitude. After a while Alex notices that the remainders of our dishes have congealed into hard yak lard. We poke at the white heaps, and my stomach does a pirouette.
8pm: After searching for two hours for a working internet connection, we find a quiet bar with a doyen named Barry from Shanghai. He instructs us to bring our own computer, we do, he sets us up. The bar is traditional Tibetan in dark wood, with a central fire coughing up pine wood fumes, dim lit. It is cozy, there is no one else there. The connection works, we are online. Barry brings us tea and fresh strawberries, we savor the saturation of comfort.
2am: I am running through the freezing courtyard in a t-shirt and long underwear to use the hole in the dark. I notice there are many stars, and that it is cold and dark.

10am: I am walking up the central stairs through an ancient city that is one big monastery. There are temples hidden in every corner, each different. The monks wear scarlet, they contrast vividly with the deep blue sky and wispy dragon clouds. An eighty year old monk, sunken and toothless, is easily beating me up the steps. He laughs, and keeps saying "Hello" in a thick accent, deep and phlegmatic in the thin air.
12pm: The temples are exquisite. They are like nothing I've ever seen. The murals are so intricate in the dim light and blur of incense and yak tallow votives that my eyes hurt. We travel from the bottom to the rooftops of each temple, wondering that the clouds are different every time, sometimes huge white billows, sometimes winding wisps, sometimes a fringe of fish scales. Sound travels further in these mountains as well, there is always the low descant of the long horn and the reboant flange of polytonal chanting from somewhere in the sprawl.
8pm: I thought at first the dancing was a singular event. Not so. Every night, presaging the darkling, a few old women and men down from the mountains start a circular dance on the main square around a dented boombox on a wooden chair. The sky is now a deep sapphire, fringed in a shimmer of aquamarine behind the mountains. Everyone is now dancing in concentric circles - the whole town - shopkeepers, tribes, tourists, everyone. It is simple and joyous.
2am: The rats in the rice sacks that line the ceiling are keeping me awake. Every movement causes the fabric to billow and crinkle, perfectly outlining their squirming shapes. I can't see them anymore, the night is very dark, but I can hear them as they waltz and converse in high notes of query. I get up to use the bathroom, and once again slip down the steps that have been worn over time into a veritable wooden slide, stripped and gleaming in the starlight, and tread through the irregular courtyard in the cold to the hole in the ground.

2pm: The yaks are watching, I know they are, as I get naked on top of the mountain. It has taken a good deal of effort to find the hidden hot springs, but find them we did. I try to pull on my swimsuit as quickly as possible, I feel incredibly exposed as the wind tears into my flesh. All the people here have cheeks that are permanently red, like dolls, from the wind, some have ears that are forever black from the same. The view of the green mountain carapaces huddling together under that intensely vast sky while we soaked in a cauldron of chartreuse slime would be worth it.

4pm: Mountains. There is an unbelievable amount of nothing but mountains for ever and ever and ever and ever as I loll my head on the cool window pane of the bus and rub my feet together for the illusion of warmth. The gawky guy in front of us thinks he's the Marlboro man, chain smoking in a Stetson. I turn back to the endless panorama and try to enjoy it - the golden valleys with rocky streams folding up crisp like satin into yellow hills, backed by green mountains of pine, speckled with purple wildflowers, framed by massive monoliths of blue rock, topped in snow. The clouds are ever changing and lovely. The Marlboro man is still chain smoking and the ashes coat my face.

9am: Mountains. There is an unbelievable amount of nothing but mountains for ever and ever and ever and ever as I loll my head on the cool window pane of a massive freight semi - the bus was full - and again rub my feet together for the illusion of warmth.
10am: It is snowing.
2pm: The old monk is named Songdu, we're up on the top of the mountain in Litang, which is already situated at a stupidly high altitude. Every prolonged motion leaves me weak and sets black spots swimming through my vision. Songdu's face is lean, bony lineaments outlined in deep wrinkles, around a smile sweetly curving up from long teeth stained saffron. He does not speak English, we do not speak Chinese, but he is full of good humor and is willing to caper about pantomiming his meaning. He is teaching us about Buddhism in this way. We're on the top floor, it is warm and heaped in piles of tapestries and devotional scarves. It is the final stop in our impromptu tour, and he picks up an old Sprite bottle. He says "Dali Lama" and acts out spitting into it. He passes it to Alex, who drinks some as instructed. I defer. Alex will later claim that Songdu acted out breathing into the bottle, but I will maintain that the spitting motion is universal and that Alex drank Lama spit.

5pm: Mountains. I never thought there could be so many mountains. As we go through the passes, prayer flags are flung from the windows. They catch in mid-air, bright against the gray rocks, green pine and purple rhododendron, then do cunctatory somersaults through the sky. We pass villages that span space and time - some straight from the pueblos, pink or white stucco boxes, small windows, big internal courtyard, some from ancient Greece, with yellow brick and big external courtyard, some pure ancient China, big wood squares, all slanting roof, a tiny smudge of wall, houses piled one atop each other in a convoluted mass. We pass countless tent villages of nomads herding yak, the tents are made from piled rock and tarps, and each grouping has a pool table set out in the front, in pride of place, with the mountains for walls in these singular pool halls.

1pm: Mountains. Green now, trellised and stout like ziggurats. The mist swallows the tops, and roiling clouds rill through the valleys like vats of boiling milk. We've left the Tibetan plain, this is the "Chinese" China now. No more roughs in long hair and blanket sarongs, no more women with braids about their brow with bright fabrics woven into the pleat and handmade clothes in saturated hues. There are instead factories, cars, mines - drips of progress falling as steadily as the thin drizzle over the mountains.
4pm: We've made it to Chengdu. We celebrate by immediately buying a plane ticket to Inner Mongolia. But that's a story for another time.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Siam Chronicles 23 - Jinghong and Kunming in a Falling of Wings

A Border of Dead Things

We had expected troubles at the Chinese border. This is natural, it is common. We got off the bus and were herded into a series of lines. The first was a disease checkpoint, wherein you were to "regard the machine" which I did. It was strange with many buttons. It was not turned on, but I fully inspected it anyway, attempting to ascertain its purpose. This passed the time up the first line, until we filled out a symptom card. On the list was "snivel" - I suppose they meant "sniffle" - and I was strongly tempted to check it because I was feeling tetchy.
We were released to the next checkpoint, and I found it interesting that the ground was littered with dead things, some birds, a few large beetles but mostly huge moths, dead or dying. They were brilliant, their carcasses were everywhere. The grass was a riot of yellow spots, red beading on brown wings, orange stripes. I don't know why they were all suddenly dropping out of the sky to die, I imagine it must be the change on the border from nature to insecticide and contamination, but I can't be sure. All I know is that the creatures of flight were falling to earth and sticking there, their pinions pinioned.
The final checkpoint was not easy to clear. The power had just gone out, so the line became massive, and soon deteriorated into a tumbling tide of groin-high elbows. The two persons behind the counter looked on the unruly horde with a removal like they were contemplating a shadow lengthen on a white wall. Things worsened as a half an hour ticked by, we were stuck in a riot and being pushed forward into an immovable object.
When the power finally switched back on, I had made mortal enemies with a girl in a frizz of dyed red hair and tight dressings. She had come on a much later bus, and had butted in before us, looking at my sour face and laughing in it, high and shrill, as she put her diminutive figure to use as an eel. She then started collecting a pile of passports from on-lookers as we sat, powerless, and I was considering how that puff of hair would make a great handhold and that bony body would give up a satisfying snap as she again gave me an ugly sneer. But at the pivotal moment I pitched Alex forward with a knee-jerk in his spine, and he fell against the desk, our passports falling into the hands of the young customs officer. He took them, and the face of my new nemesis fell like an underdone pound cake. It was immensely gratifying - I may not speak any Chinese, but I am conversant in some Asshole. The young customs officer looked at Alex, and after a time asked if he was secretly Russian because his middle name was Yaakov. Alex answered truthfully that he was not Russian, and his passport was stamped, one down, me to go. But with great misfortune, the clocked moved a minute on and it was time for the shift change. This took a good five minutes, as a new customs officer, a lady with glasses and copious acne, settled in with great care at the chair. Alex had been expunged from the throng by now, like a poisonous frog from the gullet of a snake, and I was a few heads back, unable to get closer. When she was good and ready, she leisurely flipped my passport open. I know by heart the picture that greeted her - a faded square of a lanky girl with white-blond hair, short and up in spikes, with a hungry face, round glasses and a septum piercing shot almost ten years before. She regarded this image for a while, a minute or so, just thinking on it and what it could mean. Then she lifted her eyes and scanned the crowd. There were only two westerners left in the tide, me and a teacher from Vientiane with a new beard - neither of us matched this description. She didn't look confused, she looked wary, cagey. She called out my name, and I popped up, prairie-dog like, from the tussle. "Me, it's me." I think I said. She called me in, the elbows let me pass until we were face to face. "YOU?" She said . "This is YOU?" She regarded again the photo I knew so well and compared it with the face I knew so well from the mirror: stout, brown hair, no noticeable piercings, a matronly sort even. The picture was that of something long gone a decade ago, a dead thing in a paling frame. I tried to explain. "Ten years ago. Look at the date." I said. She still didn't believe me. She showed the picture to a slew of military men, there were large gestures involved - they had to decide if I was the same person. I could have told them I wasn't.
There was apparently nothing they could do to preclude my entrance on the score of not being who you once were, and the legion left. But my troubles were compounded by the fact that my passport had run out of pages, I had traveled so much in the last decade, so I had sent it to the American embassy in Vientiane to have more added. I could see her considering the 1-20 pages covered in stamps and stickers, and the A-Z pages stuck in between, relatively clean. She flicked the tattered, frayed book back and forth under her glare again and again for a good fifteen minutes. She did not want me to enter China, she was desperately thinking of something that would prevent me from crossing the border. I would have naturally hyperventilated, but I was doing so anyway as the crowd crushed me against the desk, squeezing the wind from my lungs as I watched her contemplating at length a reductive story of my twenties in stamp form.
Finally she sighed, pianissimo, and gave me a paper to sign. I did so, I couldn't breathe, I flicked the pen quickly across it the thin surface and shoved it back. She looked triumphant. The signature did not match. I realized that ten years ago, I had a different signature, a closer approximation of my appellation. Now, I just sign my initials in a cursory scrawl - I may as well just make a big X. I realized my mistake, and snatched the paper back, tried to remember who I was once, what I felt, how I wrote, and tried again, impersonating myself. I didn't do a good job at it, but it was good enough, and she finally released me. Her deliberation on this point took over a half an hour, but it was almost worth it to see the murderous look on the frizzled dyed redhead as I finally passed into China, masquerading as a dead thing.

Another New Jersey

Crossing from Laos into China was like going from the Appalachians straight into the slag heaps of New Jersey. Everything was rubble, trash, everything smelled like dead fish. The people on the bus were chain smoking and chain spitting, and the small track through the mountains was all sharp turns and big bumps. As we went further along and I relied on my miniscule fortitude to prevent motion sickness, I noticed that what I had considered to be mountains became hills, and real mountains began. They were trellised with farmland and concrete arches to prevent erosion, and striped in winding mist.
We finally stopped at the city of Mengla, and immediately decided we wanted to leave the city of Mengla. I really felt like I wanted to turn right around and head back, back to SE Asia, back to anywhere but this industrial sinkhole, but I persevered. The next bus was to Jinghong, and it was to leave in an hour. I left Alex at the bus station with the screaming hordes of people trying to be his new best friend, and set forth to find a bank where we could exchange our Lao kip.
I had wended my way through six blocks or so, noting the incredible filthiness of the place, the restaurants with sagging vegetables on counters and blackened pans before the concrete inlets of the anorectic interior, when I heard my name keening across the hubbub of the traffic. I looked back to see Alex gesturing madly. I ran to him. It was an hour later here in China, we had forgotten this and were about to miss our bus. Somehow Alex had run with two massive backpacks and two heavy bags belted about his person, like an ant with a substantial crumb, just to catch up with me. The fact our bus was leaving was suddenly of no consequence, although I really did crave expedient exodus. What was of import for me was how Alex had managed to run for six blocks with all those bags. I stood there on the filthy street, squalid men squatting in the gutter smoking and spitting, and I queried him, time against us, as to how he had done it. He said in jagged breaths that he just had to, so he did, and I took a precious moment to look at him with admiration. Then I donned my baggage and on the way back everyone was cheering, a group of lovely girls even percolated out of a shop to chant a motivational doggerel as we sped on. Alex was a hero, the man who had run with a mountain on his back.
We made our bus, only just, and spent the next five hours on more industrialized mountain tracks on the way to Jinghong. It was slower than needed because the whole country is being razed, top to bottom, and the small road was filled with big trucks ferrying stone back and forth over the blasted countryside. They were so massive that they couldn't even fit the width one way, and it was a two way road. So there were innumerable traffic jams where we would stop, get out of our van, and everyone would navigate the trucks through the track. The substructure just wasn't big enough for this sort of incredible destructive industry. I could imagine the scenery as having been amazing, this once remote, once pristine, once green Southern Yunnan, but it was lost to strip mines, factories and refuse dumps - just another dead thing.

Jinghonging Along

We got into Jinghong in the early evening, and instead of a taxi engaged an old lady in a floral print dress with a bicycle hooked to a flat trailer. She pedaled us to our intended hotel, wheezing and puffing her way through the small city, slower than a toddler's walk. So it was we arrived at a hotel after taking two buses and an old lady.
We got settled and set out into the small city, teeming with hill tribe peoples, and I got a small dose of the culture shock I had been saving for America.
There were cars everywhere. It was loud. It was polluted. People didn't look at you - and when they did and you noticed they dropped their eyes. They were rude, shoving and cursing. They came in different shapes and sizes - some were fat, some slim, some tall, some short, some had wide heads, some small, some had huge ears, some had glasses. They were all Asian, but they were all radically different. Every Lao is unique, but they don't comb the genetic spectrum like the Chinese. I was in a thrall to find men with big noses or women with wide-set eyes. And everybody dressed differently, most in designer clothing expressing their consumerist individuality except for the hill tribes, showing their traditional stripes. It was wild. And men and women were touching in public. They were kissing even. There were advertisement galore, and some of these featured women who were extremely scantily clad. I was agog.
We had a great time in Jinghong, the food was incredibly good - the dominant ethnic group are the Dai, ethnic Thai-Lao from the old Siamese empire, so it had a leisurely gait. I even got to ride an ill-tempered afghan camel. I don't think he liked me very much.

Kunming is the Sting

We liked Jinghong, but left on a ten hour VIP bus to Kunming because this was unavoidable. Kunming is where the railway starts, and it is a big bus route. We had to go.
It was a long trip, longer still because the "bathrooms" en route were concrete trenches were you squatted with everyone, no running water, no sinks. I was again glad that I have no shame, crawling past elderly piddling grandmothers crouched over a stinking pit for the opportunity to go pantless in public yet again.
We stopped for lunch at a dingy set of tables. I pointed at a dish, and discovered at my first mouthful I had at long last found the liver and intestines I had so been pining for. I let Alex finish it off, and succored myself with candy until we got into Kunming at five.
The bus station was madness. Men were sucking opium out of bazookas converted into bongs, hill tribe peoples were running up the luggage stacks like ants, their bright geometrical clothing shocking in its intensity, the fume from the buses was thick as a steam bath and coated everything in a yellow pall, and in and out of the haze dirty women were running up screaming at us in a language we didn't understand. We made haste out of the dreamscape, and found a cab to take us to a hotel.
More cultural shock. I had forgotten about rush hour. We sat for twenty minutes a block, just waiting - so many cars. This was a city. A city, I had forgotten what a city was like. It was raining, it was crowded, it was noisy, it was noxious, it was even chilly. It was full of billboards and neon shop fronts, featuring demented westerners in insipid pink jackets on a golf course. Do we all play golf in aggravating pastels? I don't know anymore. Do we?
We got to our hotel. I took a freezing shower and immediately got a voracious cold. It came on quick, but within an hour I was a font of phlegm, and it was worsening. We went out into the night for dinner anyway, and found an agreeable restaurant to pass the time - warm and cozy. We spent a long spell there reading and drinking Chinese brandy, which isn't nearly as bad as it sounds, before we went out into the rain to walk the long way home. We were impeded in our traverse by a cultural parade. It was midnight on a Sunday and Kunming was having a cultural parade. It featured all the hill tribes in full garb doing their native dances and a bunch of balloon teddy bears. Ok. We stopped to observe and take horrible photographs, but I was literally upended by one tribe, swagged in scarlet bolts shagged with silver coin kickshaws, who started springing up synchronized in turns and singing together, singing one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. I was leaning down low, in the dim light trying for a picture by stabilizing the camera on my knee, and I was transfixed. I listened through the drizzle to this lilting siren song as they all upped and turned, swiveling through the darkling, wishing I could fix the melody into my mind forever, that I could hear this song as I wanted, whenever I wanted. But they went on through the rain, on beyond me into the dim, and as if out of a trance I tried to stand up to follow them on. It didn't work, my legs were atrophied from squatting, I went sideways instead of up and managed to fling myself across the sidewalk. I was a grimy splatter pattern in the wake of greatness.
The next day I was well on sick, and it was still cold and raining. I had brought nothing but a few ragged tees and flip-flops. We forded through the grey city slick for a few blocks, until I broke down and bought a pair of shoes. This was the first time I had worn shoes, not flip-flops, but shoes, for eleven months. They threw in the socks gratis, it cost me five dollars. It was strange to feel my toes in a new found acquaintance to each other, and I hoped that none held a grudge though after a day I realized my pinky toes were disinclined to such proximity with the rest of my feet, and were staging a protest. We walked forever, trying to find the "old town" street - it was hilarious in its way. Everyone we asked pointed in a different direction. We wandered in circles in smog and rain, through shopping malls and fast food chains, wondering where we were and what were where doing there.
For more culture shock and to get out of the cold I insisted we go into a mall - a shopping mall. This is a ginormous structure where they sell vast amounts of manufactured commodities. It is sanitized and has a permanent smell of new cloth and plastic. It is not an old woman with a wooden table slicing up a chicken who smells like ginger and is spitting betel nut juice onto your shoe. They have these structures all over the US, a happy place where I still qualify as a "medium" or sometimes a "large." But in this antipodean parallel I could fit into no size but XXL, and even then only by unbuttoning my bosom region. It caused no end of merriment for the group of tittering saleswomen trying their best to fit me into their largest clothes. I was like a sad giant in dwarf town, doing my best to fit in and failing exceptionally. Afterward we stopped in a Chinese fast food restaurant - more culture shock here - where Alex managed to order slabs of dog food on gooey rice mush. Even looking at it made my stomach try to crawl out my ear and run for cover in a dimly lit corner. But my goat-bellied spouse downed it all, and after this grueling ordeal we sought refuge in a quiet bar where I ordered more Chinese brandy, picked up my mystery novel in the soft grey light through the drizzle, and let the afternoon fade.
The next two days I was truly sick, feverish, in full flush of bronchial infection and sinus impaction. But somehow I managed to hike through the Great Stone Forest. It was bright, light and warm, but I was lost in a thick fog, removed, faded, like a shadow falling on the stones. Then both of us got lost for real, in an endless series of steps and circling through caves, karsts and chasms. After a few hours Alex used his hunter-gatherer skills to navigate a way back by sighting a lone bus across a desolate plane. On this trek we noticed we had somehow discovered and thoroughly explored the "Forbidden Zone." I've seen better Forbidden Zones.
We got made our bus, got back to the hotel, and faced the eerie elevator with total exhaustion. Every day they change its bright red carpet so once the doors snick open you are faced with the huge words "MONDAY" or "TUESDAY" in dingy red shag. It is somehow incredibly disturbing. I walked up to the elevator to depress its shiny rectangular button and found I just couldn't do it. We turned around and there was a travel agent before us. We walked in and bought two airplane tickets to Shangri-la for 7am the next morning.
So here we are on the edge of Tibet in a honey wood house etched out of elaborate tiers and lattices under a cobalt blue sky, warmed by a pot-bellied stove. The air is thickened by wood smoke and old Tibetan men in women in bright clothing are dancing in a circle outside on the slick cobblestones to a simple melody crackling out of a radio. Today is "WEDNESDAY" and suddenly I'm feeling much more alive than I have in a long, long time.