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Monday, August 29, 2005


[Those who have been reading regularly know our intrepid (if weary) adventurer has been wending his way along a branch of the Silk Road. Here's a link to a program called Silk Road Seattle which you may find interesting. This map gives an idea of the region where Alan is currently resting his bones.--ed.]

Sometimes when traveling, you wish for a break, a vacation within a vacation as it were, especially when you are moving from place to place with little time to stop and absorb everything and just relax. In the past I have preferred to spend long amounts of time in each place I visit, three weeks here, three there, maybe one or two here. Now, in China, I just want to see everything, and though I know it is impossible, that desire has been driving me along at a brutal pace. Then a breakdown. Or rather, several breakdowns, on a bus. A 36-hour bus ride and a 4 AM arrival in a town I was not anticipating arriving in for another three or four days.

My time in Yining was hit and miss. Yining has a relaxed pace, as I mentioned earlier, and the people were friendly enough. Then, there was an overlong bus drive to see Sayram Lake, and then going back the same day. The German guy I was with was not feeling great, and for the first time my stomach was not feeling the best either. Then I went to try to get permission to go to Nalati. [I'm going to ask Alan for some clarification. The Nalati grasslands seem to be including on a lot of tour itineraries, but perhaps that has changed, or else he's looking to go somewhere specific.--ed.] That permission was denied. Maybe in ten years it will be open to foreigners the lady told me. She said she asked three superiors, but they all said no and for me to have any chance I would have to go all the way back to Ulumuqi and ask someone in the military.

So the decision was made that I would head off to Kuqa instead, thinking the drive would last 20 hours at most...wrong. First there was the usual wait to leave the bus station. After a half hour we drove a mile to another bus station. Then we waited two hours while the drivers tried to fix something (one of the drivers had already told me it was a bad bus and that I would have been better off getting a bus to Ulumuqi and changing there). Then the bus was ready and the other passengers, most of them Uigher and Kazakh wearing bright and quaint outfits (I say quaint because of the little girl wearing the pink dress and the women wearing dirty white leggings under their flowered dresses and these pointy toed high heeled shoes that made me thinnk of the Wizard of Oz).

Three hours late we started. Then we stopped for gas, and then for food. Then we had our first breakdown. It took us 6 hours to reach Sayram Lake (and I had been upset when it took more than three the day before). There were several more breakdowns along the way. Then while passing a military convoy our bus hit the back of one of the trucks, tearing our door most of the way off. Then the people from our bus argued with the military men for about an hour while everyone crowded around and either listened or added their two cents. At last it was decided to go up to the next town to make a report with the traffic there was our bus being followed by 5 or 6 army vehicles. Fun!

About and hour-and-a-half before we were to arrive in Kuqa, we stopped for dinner (it was about 12:30 AM) and buses came and went and we still did not leave. Then we did. It was 4 AM when I arrived at the hotel. And then, at 4 as I was checking into a room, a taxi driver started asking me about taking a tour the following morning.

So what do you do during a 36-hour bus ride.. One thing you must not do is complain, or think about how horrible it is. I couldn't help but laugh (a sarcastic laugh granted) at each unexpected stop when my companions took it all in stride. And it was interesting talking to the bus driver to hear real cyncism about certain things in relation to bus travel here. I read as much as I could during the day, and wrote when the road wasn't too bumpy. I tried to lose myself in daydreams when I needed to rest my eyes, or to remember happy moments with Natalia or in different experiences. I tried to think about all the steps in my life, good and bad that have brought me to this point. I tried to budget use of my iPod so as not to use up all the battery too fast. I took pics when I had a chance and through this made a good friend with a young girl sitting with her mom in the bed next to me. She liked to smack me when I was walkng past her and to pull my leg hair when we were just sitting.

At dinner the first night I had a great encounter with a Uigher man. I won't discuss things we talked about now, but maybe a day in the future. He did say he loved America, though, and shared a lot of pictures with me from his trips in China. He is very proud of his step-brother who can speak German and English and who lives and teaches in Australia. The man was the manager of the restaurant and he added lots and lots of meat to my bowl as we talked and then he poured me an excellent cup of mint tea.

Another highlight came when we were at the police station and an older man--well, probably 50 but looking much older--a chain smoker with crooked rotting teeth and a sweet smile found me walking towards a store and hurried over to give me a popsicle. I found, really, that several of the men on the bus became sort of protective of me in a way.

A lowlight, and sorry about this mom, but more in the excrement vein. As I mentioned earlier, my stomach started feeling a bit dodgy in Yining and it was not any better during the bus ride. Thus, on two occasions I found myself squatting in the great outdoors, sheltered by a small tree once and in the midst of two or three piles of rock and trash the second time. On this second occasion two dogs started barking from behind a fence, making another man making use of this area to jump up with his pants unbuckled and falling and run to another spot. Those of you knowing of my history with dogs in Asia, of my bite in Kinmen, perhaps might imagine my heart pumping just a bit faster, making it all the harder to take care of business. And then, as my last meal came out of me with a splash, I noticed sitting not two feet away the fresh looking carcass of a stillborn puppy. Brown fur matted, looking as if it had not dried long before, stiff. Not much bigger than my hand.

I was very happy to be finished.

And now in Kuqa, or Kucha as it might be better spelled (Chinese maps are always different when using English spellings). Yesterday I took a tour of surrounding desert sites with an Australian and a Japanese guy met in the hotel. Rather, we rented a car and driver together. The scenery was stunning, jagged desert and snow capped peaks. Ruins. But it was pouring down rain and windy and cold. Then there was a flash flood and the car became stuck in a small river pouring across the road, the water the color of chocolate milk (and not unlike the results of my most recent bathroom visits). The driver said straight away get out and push. The water was just up to the bottom of the door. Took of my shoes and rolled up my pants and said hell with that. I walked through the water, sinking in mud, to where there was road. But my two companions were better men than me, and with help of 7 or 8 Uighers were able to pull the car up and out of the mud. I didn't feel great about not helping, but I was just fed up at that point. Sometimes it happens. And I got to take pictures this way.

I have to wonder if everyone has such bad luck as me with cars and buses in Asia. I know they are not the most reliable, but when I add up boat, bus and car experiences in Cambodia, Laos, and China, it seems to me that at least 90 percent of mine have had something go wrong. Surely this percentage is higher than normal?!

Or maybe not.

Today: walking around and meeting people, taking pictures, etc. Tomorrow morning off to Kashgar, and then maybe Taskurgan in the same day as possible. Unless things change and I end up going to Tibet (doubtful) I should be wrapping up my western experiences sometime about a week from now, ending it with a 60-some hour train odyssey from Kashgar to Xian. But who knows what might change between now and then!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Sayram Lake

The bus rolls along at a speed you do not think possible. How can a bus go so slow? How can a knowledgeable driver keep the car in first gear for so long? In first gear through the countryside and past a market place where horses and donkey carts crowd the side of the road. Past rows of corn and patches of sunflowers. Past corn drying in heaps on the small road running parallel to the main, and also drying pools of grain. Still in first gear and the bus enters into the passage through the mountains. The low desert hills behind the fields are gone and now the hills grow larger. They are covered from top to bottom with tall pine trees that in the afternoon will be indistinguishable from one another as the shadow cast by one covers the next and so on down the hill. In first gear past a stream and grazing sheep. The bus rumbles and is passed by every vehicle on the road, all except the mule-drawn wagons. You can feel the vibrations of the straining engine and wonder why, why will this man not switch gears. The road goes neither up nor down. Still in first.

The day starts with plans to go to Sayram Lake, a lake passed on the road from Urumqi. You passed this lake as the sun was rising and a few bands of pink spread above the low hills on the far side of the lake. In that hour it is not possible to discern how large the lake is, or how blue. Yesterday was a splendid day. You took pictures of people and people and more people, some that you can see will make people laugh and smile - the picture of the little boy with his tiny thing hanging out of a hole in the front of his pants. He is in his grandfather's arms. There is the man you talked with for about a half hour, he and some younger guys, about America and guns. Here is the woman with a little boy playing on a car in the park. She cannot read Chinese writing and cannot give you her address to send her the pictures you take. Instead she pays for the people in the park to take a picture of you with her son. When you are older, the memory of this moment will be long gone, but for this woman, for her son, who knows? Fifteen years from now he will ask, mom who is this? And maybe, just maybe she will say this is the nice American man who took your picture and played with you in the park one day. Two more kids, the same car. You pushed them around and had them screaming with laughter. Here is the man who asked you about George Bush and Michael Jordan. [and whom better than Alan to ask about Michael Jordan? --ed.] Here is the man who just sat on the sidewalk and smiled, his cane in the foreground, and stunning wise eyes above a long white beard. And the group of 50- or 60-year-old women sitting on the sidewalk, trying to hold their skirts down. The girl in the beauty parlor winking while the other girls sit around bored. Here are the men sweating as they work a piece of iron, and unexpected break in their day, you walking in and taking their picture as they work, and then them standing together arms around each other smiling.

Why do you do this? Why do you take these pictures? There are so many now, these people pictures and you dream of making a book of them and sharing them with others. But also, and maybe this is where your motivations should really be: You hope in a self-absorbed sort of way that you are giving them memories. That you are sharing with them a moment that they will share with others. Let me tell you what happened today, they will say...or later, when seeing a foreigner they will be reminded of that day when...all these little pieces of yourself you wish to leave behind, planting little seeds of yourself in foreign places. Your name is not important, or your face. Just the happiness you leave. Some people want to have their picture taken in front of beautiful or important places as a way of showing others they were there. You want to prove it another way.

Yining is behind now. The bus was to leave at 11, but then it was 11:30 when it arrived to pick people up. And now it has stopped two or three times, and this ride in first gear is killing you. All your talk of being patient is sounding hollow right now. The mountains get higher. These are walkable mountains. There is grass and there are steep but passable slopes. And even just to walk along this road would be nice. Your legs are bouncing and they will not stop. The bus starts uphill, still in first gear. The road winds back and forth adn the scenery is stunning. You are losing hope, though, of reaching the lake.

The bus crests the hill and starts down. Now, and now the driver changes gears. From second, to third! What is this? The road bends once, bends twice...and then:

Then your breath is caught in your throat.

You are reminded of a moment several years ago, a lifetime ago really. You had been abroad once but this was your first of several moves that left people shaking their heads. You knew one person in a town halfway across the country. You had no job there, and no real plan but to get there and figure things out. You were with your father and along the way you stopped to see your brother, and then at the town your father was born in. You stopped in Kansas City to sleep, or some other town along the way. Your dad, bless him, drove the whole way. Maybe he knew you were too distracted to drive, too absorbed in the land west of the Mississippi, and in the dreams that seemed so much closer to coming true, the dreams of writing and of love, just by virtue of being farther away from home.

The plains seemed as if they would never end. Endless flat land. Then the distant rise of the Rocky Mountains signalling your new home coming closer. Then Denver and it all seemed much realer than you were ready for. Up 36, and then...A sign that reads Scenic Overlook Ahead. You don't give it much thought but then, the hill you don't realize you are climbing stops and drops. There, beneath you and in front of you and in the distance because you don't know where to look - the Flatirons, the sheer rock faces of the Front Range you have seen on TV during college football games. Snow capped peaks. The red roofed buildings of CU Boulder. All of Boulder laying there before you. You are speechless and you are in your new home.

Back in your bus you catch your breath. Before you, reaching to the horizon, with low mountains on one side and a flat ribbon of highway on the right, beyond which are hills of grass and pine populated by sheep and goats and yurts, is a blue lake. How unfair a desription to say a blue lake, when this does not account for the hues, the variations of blue that change with the large white clouds pass overhead. It is a blue you have seen before, in the water around a small island in the Pacific Ocean, and another in the Indian Ocean. It is a blue that reminds you of the blue contact lenses that you have seen some Chinese wear, the kind of blue you know cannot be real. And to be here, so close to the desert, in the middle of nowhere, seems absurd.

You climb up a ridge then, looking for views. [Alan seems to have left the bus.--ed.] The ridge takes you away from the road and the tourists dotting the shores of the lake. You go amidst sheep and watch as some tourists take another route, riding horses. The short green grass of the slope is dotted with pellets of sheep or goat droppings, and larger piles that have come from cows or horses. You reach the top and then find more grassland, strewn with rocks of various sizes. Some have little patches of yellow on them, others black lines etched into the silver-gray. It occurs to you, a wish to be able to map all of this out with words. To describe it all, to share with all the people you know will never see it. It kills you just a little bit to know it is hopeless. There are mountains ahead of you. Turning you see the lake, and it is more blue now, with more hues. You walk more and feel like maybe you are in the highlands of Scotland. Or in the mountains of Tibet (although you hear there are no trees there). The highway becomes visible, winding between the mountains. There is more crap and more rocks, and you take another of what you think of as your scenic pisses, because in the last month alone you have pissed in more beautiful places than you could have asked for. Perhaps, you think, you should have been marking these spots with photos as well.

The walk ends, as they always do. You eat a too pricey bowl of delicious soup (too expensive at a dollar and change). A man wearing a Muslim cap and a worn-out face asks in an indecipherable accent where you are from. Together you work out your American nationality. The man clasps his hand over his heart and makes a gesture you cannot misunderstand. He pours out some beer and offers it to you. I welcome you with my heart, he says. Perhaps he is an old drunk, but it doesn't matter. His sincerity does. When you leave he stands and clasps your hand. You clasp his in both of yours and you pray again that all of these small moments, all of these interactions that become too numerous to count will not escape you.

You catch a bus back to town and it is all going too well. You see a bus with its windshield smashed out. There are no dead bodies lying on the road, and you wonder how this might have happened. Then there is a police stop and another long and unnecessary wait. You think about the patience you have learned teaching young children and realize that a new type of patience is required here. You are learning again.

I don't know how many people are reading these posts of late (although I appreciate the great things a few people have told my parents--and to Dusty, thank you for the comment, and for everyone else who has, sorry I can't offer any sort of response). I have been messing around with different writing styles while doing these different things and just follow whatever rhythm gets me at a given time. You can tell, I hope, when I do find a good rhythm, and likewise can tell when I am tired and just trying to give an account of where I am and what's up. Anyway, I would just like to ask anyone reading, if it's not too much trouble, if you see a style you like a lot, or think there are things that could be better, please leave a comment or send me an would be much appreciated!

And now, I am in Yining, a pleasant town out near the Kazakhstan border. It is mellow here, with lots of street vendors and people out in the evening drinking beer and eating kebabs or ice cream. Ive seen several bars and discos and the usual KTV's as well, but haven't gotten around to checking any out. I am at a bit of an uncertain point right now. I will go tomorrow to see if I can get a special permit to visit an area that is closed off to foreigners but that is supposed to be full of mountains and grasslands. If I can I will be in Nalati tomorrow, a place I know nothing about, including where exactly it is. You could say that this will be really off the beaten path (although I have yet to see any other foreigners in Yining, besides the Germans I am with). If it is a no-go on the permit, I will head to Kuqa, which is back on the silk road and will be the launching point for the trip to Kashgar.

The last line to be written today, dedicated to mom: Happy Birthday! I love you.

Heaven Lake

Earlier on this trip I read a book by a guy named John Dalton called Heaven Lake. In it the main character is a missionary just out of college sent to live in Touliu, Taiwan (hey, I've been there!) It is set in the early nineties before a lot of things changed there, but a lot of what he talks about I can still recognize. Anyway, the character ends up being hired by a wealthy Taiwanese businessman to travel to the mainland, as far as Urumuqi to find and marry the girl that the man loves so that she can come back to Taiwan with the American. This was before things eased up a bit between Taiwan and the mainland, and marriage restrictions were quite fierce. It was also before China's tourist infrastructure had been better set up, and as the character follows a bit of the path I have taken it is interesting to compare what he dealt with and what I have seen now. Anyway, the book derives its title from a lake about two hours away from Urumuqi, a small lake nestled into a ring of mountains, some of which are snow-capped year round (you have to remember, the desert is not far away either and so the effect is really something)

What I could tell you about now is how beautiful the lake is (and it is). I could also tell you about the massive and obnoxious hoards of Chinese tourists who make the front part of the lake a place that is not at all peaceful or relaxing. I could tell you about walking around the lake, to the southwest corner where there are a bunch of yurts owned by a Kazakh named Rashit, where for 40 yuan you can sleep and have three meals...meals cooked on a stone stove outside, the smoke rising against a backdrop of tall, narrow pine trees. I could tell you about the millions of stars out at night, or the argument we listened to the morning after we arrived. It was an argument that pitted the men against the women and involved plenty of pushing and rock throwing, and ended in tears and storming off by all parties involved (a domestic drama to be found anywhere in the world, I think, though in the US it probably would have involved guns instead of rocks). I could tell you about sitting high on a rock above the lake and watching two men on horses lead a herd of cattle along a narrow mountain path, or later the herd of goats that munched grass on a steep slope as I climbed by them. I could tell you about the plaintive crying of a baby goat during the argument, or of a horse whinnying somewhere in a valley unseen, or cows mooing, or insects making intense buzzing sounds with their wings. I could tell you lots of things, I suppose, and already have. But this isn't what I want to tell you about. I want to tell you about getting there.

Actually, I don't. Its pretty embarrassing.

So, my German friends arrive in the late afternoon and we head off to organize the trip for the following day. We go to where we know we can buy tickets. The man says 60 yuan. I say too expensive. He says ok, 50 yuan. I say we want to spend the night and come back the following day and it's 50 yuan a ticket, and he says ok. He starts to write out the ticket and I verify once more, and then he says, no, wait, its 60 yuan. Coming back the following day, it has to be 60 yuan. You just said 50, I said. No, 60. Fine, we'll go somewhere else. I figured he would call me back but he didn't. This was about 20 minutes wasted. Then I call a Kazakh I had met on the street the previous day. He said he worked in a travel agency and his English was good. He was at a party so it was hard to talk. We worked out that for the bus ticket at 50 round trip, for entrance fee at 60, and a night with Rashit at 50, the trip should be 160. Fair enough, I said. You should go to my company tonight to get the ticket, he said. But here, we could not hear very well, and I could not get the address so I was to call him back later.

Two hours later I call him back. We had been walking awhile by then. He gave me the address to his company after several minutes spent pinning him down on the price (I am learning this is very important here). We ask if we can just get the tickets in the morning. No, no, he says. Too early. The bus leaves at 8:30. Maybe no tickets, maybe no time. Go tonight. So now we took a cab to get to the company (and this cost about 9 yuan, or just over a dollar US).

We arrived and I explain to the man there what the deal is. He calls the Kazakh and talks for awhile. Then he hands me the phone. I speak to the Kazakh and say we are there and everything seems OK. I give the phone back to the other man, and then I hear something suspicious. A minute later the man hangs up the phone and says, so 50 to the lake, 50 back. Plus the different costs. So 210 per person. Well, by this time we had spent a good 3 or 4 hours working on getting these tickets (and as I'm the one speaking Chinese amongst our little group, I was the one dealing with all this) and despite advice to be found in my post, "Insulated Travel," I just about exploded.

"Ai ya! Na me ma fan a! Ta shi hen huai ren!" (Translation: Ai ya! What a nuisance. He is such a bad man!) Then I started to get up and the man said whoa, please sit. I caught myself and did, and then explained what the Kazakh had said, plus the amount of time wasted on this stupid endeavor (and I did not include all of the things here) plus the cost of the cab, and I said you better make it 50 yuan for the round trip. He did. Then we shook hands and chatted awhile. The next day, the man opening up the place knew me by name even though he hadn't been there for all this (but I had called the other guy to arrange to leave our luggage). Then we bargained Rashit to 40 yuan, which is normal, and on the following day, the girl waiting for us to escort us to the bus knew me by name too. When we arrived back at the travel agency they were all happy to see me and it was a nice happy feeling.

The point of the story, however, is not the warm happy feeling there, or the nice things at the lake. It is this: sometimes it is better just to take the price that is about 1 USD higher than to waste a whole day trying to get a better deal.

And a few has been interesting spending time with the German couple as they have been traveling for 8 months or so together, and they have similar personality differences to those that Natalia and I share in relation to travel and life in general (namely, I find it just about impossible to do nothing and sit and relax and this drives Natalia crazy). Also, after return to Urumuqi yesterday, I went straight to the bus station to get a ticket for Yining near the Kazakhstan border where I am now. Had great fun just eating dinner and buying some supplies for the journey...after all the crap in getting to Heaven Lake, I was afraid Urumuqi might hold unpleasant memories, but not after that hour or so of backslapping and small talk. And then, on the bus, I witnessed a wonderful farewell between a young woman and her beyond-handsome young baby boy (maybe two years and a half), and the rest of her familiy. They were all so good looking, the women in bright headscarves and the lone young man well dressed and shy. The youngest of the women, a sister I think, came on the bus and kissed the woman ten or eleven times and hugged her and her smile was just radiant. I had to take a pic but not enough light so I gave up. As I watched the family outside the bus, though, with their smiles, and because they were waving to me and the German girl now, as well, I had to go out and get two shots. One of the young man and one of the girl. I went out barefoot and got them, and they turned out quite well, I think. Then I was yelled at by the busdriver for going out without my shoes. But people on the bus were laughing and wanted to see the pics and all agreed the people were beautiful. This warm memory carried me through the one hour wait to start, and then the fact that we only made it about 70 miles in the following three hours due to various long and unneccessary stops.

Now in Yining for a laundry and relaxing day. Will head to another lake tomorrow, Sayram lake near Kazakh border, and probably stay in another yurt.

Insulated Travel

Insulated Travel: a method of traveling that restricts you to certain experiences, that leaves you closed off from the full potential of what might be had from each and every day.

Five things to do or not to do when traveling in order to avoid insulated travel:

1) Do not restrict yourself to interactions only with those of your nationality or race. This means rushing to find people in your hostel to spend time with, only eating at guidebook recommended restaurants, and walking through cities without even bothering to smile at the people staring at you, waiting for some acknowledgement of their existence, something other than a returned stare.

How to avoid this? Not knowing a language makes it harder, of course. There is no doubt about that. Still, one can choose a random restaurant crowded with locals and point at food items if all else fails. One can offer up some of his fruit or bread, or perhaps propose a drink of beer. One can smile at everyone around him and answer repeated attempts at English queries as graciously and patiently as possible. If one is using a digital camera, he/she can show the people staring the results of the photo on the back of the screen. This also leads to further great photo ops with the people themselves.

2) Do not discount out of hand certain actions and reactions of local people. It is absurd to expect a foreign country (at least one that is not Australia or Western Europe or Canada or the US) to be run in a smooth and sensible manner. Annoyed responses to bad situations give you a bad appearance and pushes people away. It is important to remember that people always want to ask where you are from, and you are representing that place whether you want to or not (and thus in many ways I think Americans traveling abroad and making an effort to talk to people and leave a good impression are among the most valuable citizens we have these days - everybody doing it is an ambassador of sorts. Now, if only we could get paid...).

3) Do not discount out of hand contact with other foreigners. While some people do everything they can to spend all their time with other travelling foreigners, some do everything in their power to avoid them. These people miss out on a lot of interesting people and conversations and close themselves off to a significant part of the travel experience (and I should know this as I have been known to do it on occasion).

4) Do: (and I have mentioned this already, but it is so important--) smile. And if you know a bit of the local language, use it! Play with kids,sweet talk old ladies, joke with the vendors and cabdrivers trying to sell you their wares. You do this and they stop being annoying and a whole lot of fun. And you never know, there might just be a little reward by way of some free fruit or a discounted something or other.

5) While traveling, listen to yourself closely. Gauge your reactions in certain situations and get a feel for the people you are encountering. Develop a sense of safety that you feel is somewhat reliable. In other words, grow to have confidence in your impressions. Once you do, become aware of how many people are willing to go out of their way to help you. Perhaps they want to invite you to their home or take you somewhere outside of town, to a place that tourists don't see often, or maybe they want to sit you down for a cup of tea so they can practice their English. These are just a few potential scenarios. If you feel safe in the situation, if your instinct says go for it...then go for it. A memorable experience is around the corner (and most likely a good one!) --- Having said this, if you feel at all doubtful about the person's intentions...if you think he/she is dangerous, or after money, then say no and walk away. No regrets.

China Waking

You wake up in your dim three bed room, perhaps shared with others (known or unknown) or perhaps all your own. As the clingy remnants of your last dream fade and the new day begins, you hear sounds you are becoming familiar with, here in this large country on the other side of the world.

First it is the distant sounds you hear. Sounds of traffic, of a long unbroken string of honking horns, of different tones and volumes, from different quarters of the city. There is a hum beneath the sound of the horns, the bass as it were. These are the motors turning over, chugging to life, or revving and fading, many of them spewing black, toxic fumes out of broken mufflers.

The sounds become more local. You stand up and find your toothbrush and toothpaste. Through the door you hear voices, loud and indistinct. As you open the door the wails of an argument come unblocked. A man and woman, perhaps, or a man and the service woman. Perhaps something is missing and soon there is a crowd and a policeman and everybody is screaming to be heard even if they have nothing to do with this scene. If it is just a man and a woman, no one bothers to look.

The sounds become more local still. In the bathroom. There is the sound of a man farting, continuous blasts of gas echoing among the grimy tiles of the bathroom. Through the low broken door outside his squatter you see him reading a newspaper and smoking. As you urinate you hear him cough, a harsh, painful cough.

There are showers behind the sinks. You hear the shower running. Then you hear what could be a cat with an oversized hairball stuck in its throat but in reality is a Chinese man with a smoking habit. He hacks and hacks and then you hear him want to say spit but to say spit does not do this action justice. This man is not spitting. He is saying goodbye to a piece of his lung. Except that he is not the only one doing that. The hack is louder now, and it is coming from the man next to you at the sink. And now you see in the sink a thick yellow ball of something that has come from inside. The man picks his nose then and spits again. The sound of you spitting your toothpaste is lost amidst all this, as is the almost pleasant sound of the bristles running across your teeth.

Finished now, you feel ready for the day. You are awake. China is awake. A day awaits.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Life revealed

There is something that nags at me when walking the streets of big cities like Taipei or Hong Kong or Lanzhou, or yesterday Urumuqi. Chinese cities. When the light is just right, like yesterday, and swatches of light cut across streets, or into small alleyways I have a feeling like I am on a movie set, like I am seeing scenes that are so familiar that I must have seen them somewhere before. Most of the action happens in the shadows, away from the heat. With a camera I await what might happen in the light, or at the interesection of light and shadow where the best shots are often found. When I take long walks like these I find myself wishing that I could describe in detail every single moment, that I could share with those who haven't experienced this every smell and sound, every small interaction, every fascinating face. I can't, of course. But why do I have such a desire? What is it that I see in these Chinese cities that, despite the filth and the chaos and the noise, make me feel as if I am in a good place, a right place? And now I think I might have the answer, an explanation for why everything feels like a movie and for why I can walk for hours on end without getting tired and without getting bored. Walking through these city streets, I am watching life out in the open. Here life does not go on behind closed doors as it does in so many American and European cities. Many people here do not worry about putting on a special face for appearing outside of a suburban home or a city home. They are who they are.

In Urumuqi there are several twenty-plus story buildings being built. There are two or three big streets dedicated to serious shopping, with electronics stores and clothes stores. These streets are filled with women carrying bags of new purchases and men looking good. There in front of the stores though, are other men, wearing dirty outfits that are likely worn three or four times a week. They lounge in the shade of the umbrellas covering their wares - tables loaded with bananas and watermelons and grapes and a fruit called wu hua guo, or five flower fruit. Here are cars driving on sidewalks and children handing out cards.

Then you turn off onto a smaller road, one without a central dividing marker, and without sidewalks. These are the same streets I grew so used to in Taipei, where there is no separation between human and vehicular traffic. Diagonals of light cut across the street. Men bearing long wooden wheelbarrows appear and disappear. Men sleep under low overhangs of buildings. Men and women play cards or Go, or the game that Natalia and I played for awhile in Taipei until I got angry because I thought she was cheating even when she wasn't and after that she didn't want to play with me anymore (N - do you know what that game is called?). People lounge on the steps of their narrow restaurants, half-heartedly calling out to potential customers, or perhaps watching their children play with a small dog. A young boy, maybe three, backs out onto the sidewalk, squeezing through a small crack in a set of rusting, red swinging doors. To get out he bends down a bit and reveals split pants and a chubby naked rear end. Then he hobbles out onto the sidewalk.

Walk onto a smaller road still. Smoke mingles with the light. There is a donkey tied to a pole. A woman sweeps garbage into a tiny garage that is already half filled with rubbish. Here and there all over this street and others are small piles of rotting watermelon and sweet melon rinds. Over in the corner there, or just against the wall a man relieves himself. Around another corner is a squatting young girl doing the same.

Back onto a main road and here is a junior high school. It is Saturday afternoon, 6 o'clock Beijing time which means about 4 o'clock in the unofficial local time. Huge groups of students are grouped in the large open area in front of the school. A few shoot basketball, but most wait for their turn to face a few people standing on the front steps, guiding them through a variety of what at times seem like stretches, at times dance moves, and at times military drills. Later you see these same students in the roads and streets radiating out from the school.

Now we come to a Muslim quarter. There are mosques squeezed into tiny spaces between buildings. A series of low crumbling brick buildings are backed by three skyscrapers. The heaps of garbage are more here. The sounds are everywhere: a hammer on copper, welders, carts creaking, sellers calling to buyers.The street is filled with people weaving small zigzags through the just winding road. There are people selling rusted chains, pots, large spoons, shiny silver food stalls meant to be used for grilling kebabs, or perhaps for making soups. There are a few keymakers, and some people selling shoes. Other people have little wooden stalls behind which they repair shoes. Let us not forget the fruit vendors or the people selling bread or kebabs.

Through all of this you peek into open doors walked past. You see two women talking, one of them holding a sleeping baby in her lap. You see a woman lying on a low wooden plank, raised maybe a foot or two of the ground sleeping. You see a women sitting in front of a tub of water, scrubbing clothes. You see people just inside the doors, staring and watching, but what they are watching or seeing you can not be sure for there is something of a vacancy in their eyes. Inside the countless "mei rong jian kang" shops which appear to be barber shops but also offer massage services, and you often suspect something else, you see women bored and sleeping, or staring at TV's, or perhaps playing cards.

Life is everywhere, and it is revealing itself - the everyday lives of these people, the routines that carry them through their days, right in front of you. It is not what you are used to, or how you live. Even if you are used to it, something inside of you trembles at the rawness of it all, at the thought that the world's first big cities were probably not much different from this. Interaction is impossible to avoid. Being a stranger you receive stares. Being a photographer you attract attention. You are photographing their lives, and you see something when certain people take a moment to stop and be photographed. You see that they are changing their face the tiniest bit, wanting to appear just a bit more handsome, a bit more at ease. Others, though, don't know how to do this. They try to pose themselves, or put on a smile and they can not do it. Their awkwardness is beautiful in its way, and again revealing. Some people, they don't care. They want you to see them just as they are.

The last of the light drains from the day, the city orange for a while and then dark. But of course it is never dark. There is neon and there are cars and there are street lights. You come into a night market. There must be a hundred stalls selling a variety of soups, or more likely selling kebabs. There are neon arches over the street running through the market, placed every ten feet or so. Because of the amount of smoke they are almost invisible. Couples stop holding hands to cover their mouths and cough. These people are probably tourists if they are not used to the smoke. People sit at tables and eat and drink beer. Uigher men come and try to sell you fruit, often resorting to very underhanded tactics (especially because you are a stranger here, and you have to hold yourself steady, even when there is a knife a foot from your face, not being used in an explicitly threatening manner, but still - you have seen the way that knife slices through fruit, and this man really wants money for the melon you told him you didn't want and he cut up for you anyway). Children with dirty faces and sometimes hairy patches on their faces come and try to sell sunflower seeds. Women sell little packs of tissue paper. The owners of the stalls chase these people off when the customers start feeling too great a pressure to buy. And then the beggars come and through it all you eat your meat or fish or fruit and you drink your cheap beer.

Old friends talk louder and louder as they get drunk. Your new friends, the people you happened to sit with: a seven-year-old girl and her mother. The girl is the third best in her class of 170. You knew she was one of the best because her intelligence is obvious. A student becoming a pilot who will go to America soon, his girlfriend quiet and shy beside him. The two of you drink a beer, and then another and share stories of life in your countries or in the places you have been. He cringes and laughs at the Uigher man with his fruit and tells you to be careful. He thinks you don't really know what you are doing. You are out of your element here. And still, you talk with him and realize that though you are a stranger, you belong because this is life and everybody is out here sharing in it.

When you part at 11:30, you say good-bye and wish each other luck.

It has been a long day. You go back to your hotel, escaping it all. You are going back to your little oasis of calm, but in this city, in the city there is no calm. There are men and women in the hall screaming. There is an angry service woman who yells at you when you complain about your fan not working.

"Are you crazy?" she asks. "How can you be hot? It is so cool, and it will be cooler (at the time it is about 80 F in your room). If you use this you will catch a cold!"

And you laugh because past her anger, here is something your mother would say to you. Your young looks seems to attract such motherly concern from a good number of people. You realize that perhaps she is not angry but exasperated because in this hotel, she is expected to solve the problems, to be there for those wishing to escape the outdoor life and retreat into something that they can not have.

An hour or two later, after a shower, you fall asleep, exhausted by the day - by life. The phone rings at 2:30 and maybe it is a girl offering herself, or maybe something else entirely. You jus't dont know because in the fog of interrupted sleep your language skills disappear. You fall asleep again, and it is a wonderful sleep. Ahead of you lies another day in the heart of life and you are filled with a tremulous excitement at what might be in store next.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Strange bounce

This will be a short little entry today. I have arrived in Urumuqi. The day is sunny and the red mountains surrounding the town, peaking up from between [oh, the puns!--ed.] and above skyscrapers kind of make the place feel like a desert Denver, except that the signs are in Chinese, Russian, Uigher, and Arabic scripts. I have yet to walk much through the crowds so I don't know what the mix will be like in terms of actual people. I have heard there are many more Han Chinese than anything else here, but we will see soon enough. The bus, at least, was a full mix of Uigher and Chinese, with some looking as if they were straight from Central Asia. The best was a young girl with dark skin and thick eyebrows who was wearing a sunshine-bright yellow dress which blew around her as she did a little twirl in the wind at our rest stop. There was something simple and beautiful in that, something that can be recognized across the world as the movement of a happy child out on a perfect Saturday afternoon.

Anyway, the main purpose of this is to give another idea of the random ways in which the travel pinball bounces.

I wrote earlier about squat toilets and the rather unhygeinic conditions of some. I also mention that oftentimes there are no doors on the stalls, and this was the case at my last hotel. Not to get into too much detail, but I am rather regular in my morning calls of nature and so there I was at about 8 this morning after a half-hour conversation with Natalia. A guy walked into the bathroom looking for the shower, and because of the way the bathroom is set up, his eyes were drawn straight to where I was crouching.

"Sorry," he said. "Do you know where the showers are."

"Down the hall."

He started to turn away and then turned back.

"Hey," I said. "Good to see you again."

"You too," he said.

It was Jan, the German I had met in Dunhuang. He and his girlfriend had arrived on the morning bus from Turufan and were staying in the same hotel (that part was no surprise as I had told them I was staying there). Had he not come across me while I was taking a crap, though, or if the stall had a door, we may never have known we were there at the same time.

We went out to breakfast, and now the couple is considering heading up north with me when I leave Urumuqi on Monday night or Tuesday, depending on schedules. So things go.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Pinball Man

I seem to have a split personality when traveling. There are times, whether days or weeks, where I am an isolated being, unwilling or unable to talk to anyone unless necessary. When I am this person I walk around for hours and hours on end. When I stop to have drinks, or when I am sitting in a cafe or bar in the evening, my long periods of writing are interrupted by frequent looks around the room, looks in which I search for reasons why I can't be with these other groups of people talking about the day's experiences or the next stop on the road.

My other personality, one which has made an appearance in the last few days finds me resembling a pinball. I bounce from person to person, group to group, small experience to small experience with no clear connection from one point of contact to the next, no reason to be given as to why or how I might end up in a certain situation.

My most recent pinball game started in Jiayuguan when I met Michiko, the Japanese girl. We did our tour there and then we ran into each other again in Dunhuang. In Dunhuang, as I was descending the sand dunes, I ran into Jan and his girlfriend, a German couple. We spent the following afternoon together and made plans to either meet in Urumuqi in the coming days, or for me to stay with Jan and his friends in Kunming sometime in late September or October (this could be a blessing as I will need to apply for a visa of some of some sort while in Kunming, and a Burmese visa at least may take up to 5 or 6 days, from what I hear. Don't know about the others).

From there I caromed off to Turufan (or Turpan). The overnight bus ride was smooth, though uncomfortable. For anyone ever planning to come to China, a word of advice: if you are taking an overnight sleeper bus, and are more than 5'10, do not get a bed on the upper level, unless it is the one right over the bus driver's head. The beds are too short to lay down straight in, and the ceiling too low to sit up. The ideal beds--the one over the driver's head, and the two at the front of the middle row (I think numbers 3,6, and I'm not sure of the other)--are the only ones I saw that would seem to allow a tall individual to stretch his or her legs straight.

Upon arrive in Turufan at 6:50, I witnessed a stunning sunrise and headed to a hotel. There, I encountered a Japanese girl and a South Korean girl, both studying Chinese in Beijing. They were looking to take a tour of Turufan's sights and invited me along as it made it cheaper for all of us. We took in the various ruins around here, and the endless amount of grapes. We drove through the flaming red "Fire Mountains," and past a canyon valley filled with trees and grass and a small rushing river. All the sights here are expensive, and most are not worth the cost of admission, so mostly we drove and took things in, getting out at times to walk through little villages or take pictures of the scenery. Not a bad day, but having spent 30 USD over the course of it, I could have expected a lot more.

So today I decided to rent a bike for a few hours and head into the countryside a bit. Again, endless green rows of grape plants. Passing open doors of houses, one looks in and sees first darkness, and then light broken by trellises. Then hanging grapes, and perhaps clothes hanging, or a wooden ladder leading to the roof of the house (more on that later). People might be seen in the shadows, playing cards or doing some unseen activity with their hands. In the front near the door, perhaps, the bed on which two, three, or maybe four people will sleep at night because Turufan is in the second lowest depression in the world (or some such thing) and thus is something like a boiler pot. [Evidently it's a geographic depression, not financial a one.--ed.] Yesterday our nice guide Ahkmed (spelling?) was going on about how cool it was (at 88 F), and today as I returned from my bike ride, I was told today was not hot (Im thinking 94 F). Further along the bike ride, the snow-peaked mountains behind the Fire Mountans were revealed. The road was lined by tall, narrow trees that diffused the sunlight and the heat and made the ride not just bearable but pleasurable. A bit further along, a small stream ran right by the road. Men were washing their carpets (Persian style carpets) and young girls were washing clothes. Donkeys, motorbikes, three-wheeled motor taxis and cars shared the road.

At a point I decided I would turn onto the next side road. This was a dirt road and brought me to some children playing. I took out my camera to take a picture of them. This brought more children, and then parents. A man my age came out and asked me to take a pic of his daughter. Then I went into his house, which is really more like a compound as it is walled in and there are a few buildings and a wide open dusty yard. I climbed the ladder leading to the roof and there was a small building with three solid walls and one wall which had diamond-shaped holes cut into it from top to bottom and side to side. This was to let light in on the grapes that were hanging to dry. I watched as they set long metal rods to hang from hooks hanging from the ceiling, and then laid thin wooden sticks across the the metal rods. Outside, a man on the ground used a pulley system to lift baskets of grapes to a man dressed in dirty navy blue clothes and a farmer's cap. His short arms were laced with veins, and because of the condition of his teeth, and his deep wrinkles, it was impossible to tell his age. He pulled the baskets from the pulley and I took them to the men still inside the room, who were hanging the grapes over the wooden rods. They gave me some tea to drink and then I left. I paid nothing for this experience, but will remember it much longer than any of the "sights" I saw yesterday.

A while later I again made the decision to turn down the next road. Again it was a dirt road. Again I passed small children playing. They waved as did I. I turned back a while later and again took my camera out to take a picture. The kids came and we played a while. Then they brought me bags of grapes. Yesterday I paid .25 USD for a jin of grapes. Today I got about 2 jins of fresh picked grapes for free. As I rode off I waved to one of the boys' mother, just visible inside the door to their place. She had prepared the grapes for me and she waved back. I could see her smile, but not much else. A few minutes later, a truck full of men unloading fruit called me to stop and come over. One of them handed me a watermelon. They didn't want their pictures taken or to talk and find out where I was from and what I thought of their country. They just wanted to give me a watermelon. As my bike had no basket, I was becoming rather weighted down on the ride, but who could complain about this?

The people I was passing were mostly Uigher men and women, many of whom don't speak Chinese. Others were white bearded Muslim men. The children and the men were often stunning in their appearance, despite their dirty faces and clothes, their bare feet and rolled-up pants legs. The structure of their faces, and the colors of their eyes lend them a unique and striking look, and it leads me to wonder at what further changes I will find in appearances, in types of people encountered as I go further west.

Urumuqi tomorrow. [Enigmatic.--ed.]

Last night I ate at a small vendor stand. The two women working were not Chinese, but Uigher, or some other minority here. The older woman was fat and loud and she cooked an excellent soup. She wore a colorful dress and a headscarf and sweated as the soup boiled and she stirred and added spices and beans and tomatoes. A man next to me decided I needed some spice in my soup and so poured some in. The man next to me decided I needed more tea. We ate side by side in silence, sweating in the heat of the enclosed space. The younger woman smiled, the smile of a woman who works very very hard to get by from day to day. I felt at home there, even as I knew that such a feeling was a load of bullshit, that after I was finished eating I would go back to my 4 USD room with A/C and I would do some work on the photos I had taken that day and drink a cold bottle of beer and sleep.

Time now for me to go see where the pinball machine will shoot me next.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Dunhuang is pretty much right in the middle of the desert. After my first few stops along the northern Silk Road, and having seen very few foreign tourists, I was not surprised to see a much larger number here. This is a town full of cafes that offer western food and coffee and travel services, where long haired post-grads and Japanese youth gather for journal writings and long chats over Lonely Planet guides about this and that place, and who is going east and who west. It is a small town with a nice atmosphere, although it seems that people do not want to be photographed like people in previous places. The light is amazing, especially in late afternoon, reminiscent perhaps of Santa Fe, New Mexico, or other small desert towns and cities in the American West, where long shadows cut across reddish-orange light, and dust clouds kicked up by passing vehicles blur everything, making edges go softer and less defined.

Yesterday I took in the two main tourist activities here. First came a morning trip to the Mogao Grotto, a series of tombs carved into a cliff wall. The tombs are filled with statues and floor- to-ceiling frescoes that have led people to describe it as the Chinese version of the Italian Renaissance painters. The comparison is fair, as the variety of caves are visually stunning. There are also two seated Buddhas which rank among the top three or four in terms of height in China. They are inside caves and when you look straight up at them, despite the great height, and thanks to architectural ingenuity, the serene face of the Buddha gazes out, visible and clear.

Following this, I returned to town and continued a long conversation with a scientist from Belgium who does theoretical work related to de-mining. We had a nice lunch of mutton curry (yes, more mutton) and then headed out towards the singing sand dunes that are about 25 minutes by bike from the town center. Ides (the Belgian) and his brother were planning to stay out in the desert for the night. As I have no sleeping bag, I opted not to. However, I did go with them as they had learned a way to enter the dunes without paying. This meant not going down to the Crescent Moon Springs which are the main attraction in the dunes (and not that impressive, to be honest, at least from a distance). It also meant a 20-minute bike ride through an oasis area full of fruit trees and corn and small houses. We came to the place we wanted, and then began climbing the dunes. We walked for a good two hours up and down dunes, and then across a desert valley. It was hot; the small dry vegetation cast shadows stretching down sloping hills. We were halfway up a ridge that would lead us to the highest visible peak when the wind started whipping and sand starting climbing up the hills and then flying into the air at the ridge line. We decided after being stung by sand for a few minutes to head back down into a valley and there we rested for awhile. Every so often one or all of us might climb a smaller dune to look into the rolling desert beyond and then run back down the hill, a feeling of freedom and singing sand our reward. At about seven, they decided to venture further in to see if they might fiind a place where the wind was not so strong. I said goodbye and returned to a ridge previously climbed to watch the sun go down. The sunset was nice, as was the occasional chase of a tiny gecko across the sand.

It was when I had almost reached my bike that I ran into the German guy I will meet later today. We rode back into town together and met his girlfriend at a cafe and had a nice dinner and a few beers together. Those were well deserved beers.

I should mention the highlight of the evening, though. While walking our bikes back to the main road, through the fields, men were guiding camels to their pens along the same road. At one point we turned a corner and literally came face to chest with a camel. It looked down at us and then continued on, as did its mates. We must have passed about 30 camels altogether, some of them backlit by the headlight of a motorbike, which created a truly memorable image. All in all yesterday was an excellent day, and as we ate last night and as the Germans talked about places they have been in SE Asia, and as I looked at the map and contemplated possible options for this trip (China to Burma - sorry Natalia, and I don't really know that I will do that, China to Laos - a very attractive option, or China to Vietnam - a country I havent been to, but have heard a lot of negative things about), and as I contemplated the further reaches of the continent, and of the globe, I was struck again by the sheer number of places to go in the world. Despite the ever shrinking nature of our planet, the fact is there is an ever growing number of accessible destinations, each with their beauty or charm, or promises held, and to contemplate what is beyond the next choice of destination, the next corner of the road, is at once a beautiful and maddening exercise.

So off to Turpan, or Tulufan, tonight and what is said to be one of the hottest places in China.

Monday, August 15, 2005

On Biology

[One of the best parts of following Alan's meanderings is the opportunity to learn about things I already thought I knew. Take the Great Wall, for instance. The range of materials used in its construction is surprising. If you go to the Wiki article, be sure to follow the link to the "Great Wall Hoax." Who would have thought some Harold Hill reporters in Denver may have been responsible for the Boxer Rebellion?--ed.]

[Oh, by the way, if you are squeamish, you may want to gloss over the section beginning, "I haven't talked much about the bathrooms in China's gas stations and bus stations yet." Or, perhaps go read the children's book "Everyone Poops" first to desensitize yourself.--ed.]

Yesterday I saw the Great Wall for the first time, at its westernmost point in Jiayuguan. The fort was not the most impressive thing, but it was nice to stroll around and see very life-like wax figures in poses giving an idea of life at the fort. The museum was nice as well, not so much because of any artifacts but because of details given on the building and purpose of the Great Wall, life around it, and of the Silk Road.

The evening was the real highlight yesterday. I had gone around with a Japanese girl so we could defray our costs (we are both going solo at this point) and when we returned to the hotel at 5:30, I needed a rest. I worked on my pictures and then spent twenty minutes with my eyes closed and at complete rest for the first time in what felt like ages. I got up after that to study some characters in the lobby, and then we went out to find food.

The day had been cool and drizzly, but as I sat in the lobby a thin slice of sky opened and let the sun come blazing through, low on the horizon. As we headed out it was about 18 C with a light breeze. We came to a small one-street market and as it was quite dark there, the sounds were what you noticed most. Sounds of bike wheels and fruit peels landing amongst newspaper scraps. People calling prices in Chinese, and people calling to us to eat at their stall. The smell of barbecued lamb and pork filled the air, and for the first time in about two or three years I felt like I was back in a childhood autumn. This realization carried me away into memory and dream and my body felt much more in tune with everything around me. I bought three bananas, four pears, a jin of grapes and two bags of sunflower seeds for about 1 USD. Then we had a delicious bowl of soup and 10 meat skewers and a bottle of beer for .70 USD each. At the table to the left a drunk man insisted his companions drink just a bit more, and to the left a man and his beautiful nine-year-old daughter started talking to us. A brilliant night.

I got up early today to talk to Natalia on the phone (I wish it could have been longer!) and then headed off to what I thought would be a 6-hour bus ride on a well paved road. My hopes were raised when the bus started 1 minute after it was supposed to depart and started to pull away. What an idiot I am. Twenty minutes later we headed out, and then the long and unexpected stops began. And then the road revealed its true nature--at times paved, at times gravel, at times dirt. As the road cut through a desert, there were often clouds of dust kicked up and looking out the front window it seemed visibility was about five car lengths. This is just not enough when your bus spends as much time in the oncoming traffic lane as it does in your own.

In retrospect, I should have known it was going to be a bad ride when the women dealing with tickets began handing out bags at the beginning of the trip. The woman behind me must have puked a good six times (with the bag woman always exhorting her to make sure she did not get any on the bus floor). This is where I come to today's theme of biology.

I haven't talked much about the bathrooms in China's gas stations and bus stations yet, but perhaps it is time to. First, let me say that I am becoming old hand at squat toilets and while I prefer western toilets, I don't mind the squat toilets too much. However, the ones at the stations terrify me - especially given that the stalls don't even have doors. This means when walking into the bathroom you are likely to see five or six men squating over a drainage ditch cut into the floor, some smoking cigarettes as the do so (which actually led to a lovely moment today of watching the smoke curl up and away from a screen window letting in a swath of sunlight). Or, you may be standing over your own ditch, swatting away flies with your free hand as you piss, looking down at three long pieces of feces as the man right behind you squats down and vomits. This, I would say, is about par for the course. Another bathroom I experienced today was just for one person. It was a hole cut from a concrete slab. A rounded peak of dark brown, steaming excrement fell away to drier and lighter brown hues at the base of the mountain. It was not pleasant.

So, I am in Dunhuang now, arriving after 9 1/2 hours of bone jarring road. I will be here until Wednesday night and then head to Turufan (Turpan). Dunhuang is known for cave paintings and its sand dunes. I just pray that the sunset tomorrow, when I am in the dunes, is as lovely as the one tonight (it was one of those nights when as a photographer you chase the light, knowing rewards await).

I am off to a market now for dinner. It is hard to believe it is 10 as the sun just set an hour ago. Despite how far west I am getting, I am still on Beijing time. This will be a bit of an adjustment, I fear.

A Few Stories

I am now in Jiayuguan after another longer-than-supposed-to-be bus ride with its usual 20 minutes-late departure and two stops by police. As we drove from Zhangye the landscape became more barren, rocky, sandy. There were dried out river beds and giant mounds of dirt. Then, in the distance, a shimmer of mountain peaked by ice. A sudden burst of green fields and sunflowers, and then back to dirt. Jiayuguan itself seems nice. It is Saturday and there are people and family strolling in the streets at a nice slow pace. After three days of car horns in Lanzhou and Zhangye, I have yet to hear one here, which is nice. I had a lunch of dumplings and a chat with an 8-year-old Chinese girl and her father, sitting next to me. I exchanged a US dollar with the man so that he could give it to the girl, and I answered the girl's wide-eyed questions about America and Japan, about distances from China and about how much a plane ticket might cost. It was a very sweet thing, and a bit sad, how little she knew about how different Japan and America are, and how much farther away the US is.

Still, despite the pleasantness of this exchange, and the comfortable temperatures outside, I can't seem to shake the low feeling that descended on me at some point--I think early this morning.

Why? It is hard to say exactly. Yesterday, in Zhangye, I was taken out to a beautiful mountain area of Matisi, where there are any number of temples built into cliff faces (and where I heard an argument coming from behind one of those cliff faces, which was a bit strange). The landscape was beautiful, and I enjoyed a huge lunch of sheep (which I am sick of eating--too fatty and hard to chew, the meet), watermelon, pumpkin, potatoes, veggies, and soup. Also, there were some girls of one of the minority ethnicities in the area who danced and sang, and as part of some tradition continued to offer up glasses of bai jiu (alcohol mentioned in an earlier letter) to me and the others with me. As I was the foreigner and the others didn't really drink, I was the one who took the brunt of it and by the time we were ready to drive back, I was ready for sleep (also having not slept much the night before on a night train, despite the great lengths that were taken by my Lanzhou hosts to help me secure a sold-out hard sleeper car berth).

After returning to Zhangye, my new host dropped me off at the hotel he had arranged for me to stay in and left so I could rest. As I lay there, though, I couldn't sleep, and I realized that I now had my first opportunity in days to be off on my own. This is not a complaint about the several people who have gone out of their way to help me. Far from it. Their kindness has left me at times speechless. The problem lay yesterday in the fact that it was something of a co-worker of a friend of a friend and I kind of got the impression that at least the guy driving had no real desire to be there. The problem also comes in knowing how to graciously explain that all of the things people plan for you to do may not be what you are hoping for, and a number of people all over the place never really understand when someone tries to explain that they just want to be off on their own wandering in streets for awhile.

Thus it was that in Lanzhou I was being stared at by just about everyone, as much because of my skin as because of the fact that I was accompanied by three teenage girls (12-19) who took it upon themselves to watch out for me. This was very sweet of them, and very understandable that they would want to practice English and be with a foreigner, but at the same time, it felt at times as if I was being babysat as much as being guided around, and this in itself was a bit exhausting. It was not helped by the fact of my missing Natalia more than usual on that particular day.

After leaving the hotel, I first went outside to work on the novel that was the main excuse for my taking this trip in the first place. Having been away from it for so long it took awhile to get into it. Two pages of writing later, a 40-year-old woman sitting at the next table over (tables set up outside the hotel's restaurant) came over and began speaking to me, The speech became more excited as she realized I could speak some Chinese. Perhaps I shouldn't have in this case as she proceeded to talk to me, or at me, for about 45 minutes nonstop. I understood maybe half of it, gathering that she was telling me I should work for her company which was somehow connected with businesses in several Asian and European countries, as well as Canada, and maybe America as well. I also gathered that she thought I was "hao bang" or excellent for learning Chinese and traveling in China. The conversation ended only when I excused myself to use the bathroom and then begged off further conversation by explaining that it was time for me to go take pictures as the late afternoon light is so good for taking pictures.

I left and headed into a small neighborhood of one- and two-story earthen colored houses tucked behind the hotel. Amidst these houses, many accessed through small archways leading off the straight dirt road (and through the archways visible inside clothes hanging and children studying) were people sitting on the side of the road in the shade or on bikes. There were several mothers holding their young children, and as soon as I took a picture of one I was something of a pied piper going up and down having kids and parents, and even some older folks asking me to take pictures of them as well. Then, as I returned to the hotel, I glimpsed inside another archway to see several 30-50 something women dancing with long red ribbons, apparently practicing for some performance. Then I came upon four women playing mahjong, one of them at least 80, wearing sunglasses two sizes too large and then some. While watching this, I answered the usual questions about my nationality, how long I've been in China, what do I think of the people, where have I been and where will I go, where did I learn to speak Chinese, etc. Then a man in a security guard shirt (unbuttoned as if he had just gotten off work) came up with his 5-year-old son, imploring the boy to practice his English. We talked for a bit and then he insisted I come to his home for some food and to see how he lived. His house was on the second floor of one of the buildings, and while not large was obviously a place with a lot of love. The young boy showed me his English books and I gave him an impromptu lesson while the dad and I spoke about places in China, and about the way things are in America. He seemed very eager, as many do, to know if certain things are true and about how much it costs and so on and so forth. The man's mother served a bowl of mian tang (noodle soup, with some tomoatoes and spices that was just delicious) as well as an ear of corn. I stayed for about a half hour, and then politely turned down offers of more food insisting I must return to my hotel not knowing when or if the man who had taken me to Matisi was due to return.

He did call later than night, and I explained that I was full and why. I felt kind of bad, wondering if this would result in a loss of face for him, but after so many days of constant accompaniment and of Chinese (I think I have spoken normal English maybe 5 times in the last 3 weeks, not counting conversations with Natalia) I just could not do it anymore. He accompanied me to the bus today as well, and though I wanted to be more exaggerated in my gratitude to him, I don't know if I pulled it off. I guess today I'm just a bit burned out.

Tomorrow I will go see a part of the Great Wall for the first time, the end of it actually, or the Westernmost part. Then on Monday I will be off to Dunhuang. Who knows what today or tomorrow or any other day will bring? I am sure it will bring more curious stares and questions, more childlike excitement at being in the presence of a foreigner. I really do enjoy those kinds of interactions, but I guess maybe right now I need a bit of company with a foreigner myself...

Friday, August 12, 2005

A thought on China

[From your editor: I was away from St. Louis, home in Cincinnati for a couple of days and so am behind on posting Alan's missives. Please be sure to scroll down after this article to catch "From Langmusi to Lanzhou." Thrill to tales of Alan the visiting dignitary, Alan the mahjongg addict, Alan the mystic, and of course, Alan the "when the hell will these roads be paved, my butt is killing me!?!" bus passenger.--David]

I am in Lanzhou right now. [I'm also including this link to the cities of the Silk Road since that is roughly Alan's route at the moment. I'll shut up now.--ed.] It occured to me as I was showering this morning that the people I am with right now might give a pretty good idea of where China--at least the parts that are modernizing at breakneck speed--stands today.

Both the man and the woman come from Linxia, the town I talked about last time. [Not sure what Alan is referencing here; will check with him.--ed.] The woman's childhood house is at the end of a short, narrow lane. It is built around a small courtyard and is very much like what you might see in a movie set in the early part of 20th century or earlier China. The toilet is a squat toilet, there are separate rooms off the courtyard for the different people in the family, clothes hang across the courtyard to dry, and there is an insulated peace that stops as soon as the front doors open and relations with the neighbors begin.

Now the couple lives in Lanzhou, a bustling city which I think I said has about 2 million people, but may be more like 3 million. There are too many cars on the streets, and the sound of honking horns is endless. Yesterday afternoon, a haze reminiscent of the worst of Taipei days clung to the city until late afternoon, and now, on this rainy day, I can just make out skyscrapers maybe half a kilometer away. At night, the streets are alive with people, eating, sitting in gardens drinking tea or beer, playing drinking games. Many people head to the Yellow River, a dirty chocolate color by day, by night black, or purple in the glare of the neon lit ZhongShan Bridge. There are carnival-like games set up along the path by the river, and tables for sitting a chatting and drinking. Vendors sell juicy peaches for unbelievably cheap prices, or cotton candy, or nuts. There is a water show in the Bellagio vein (but much less impressive, and set to classic Muzak artists like Lionel Richie). You may even see something a bit on the strange side, like a man corraling and forcing a snake into an empty water bottle (like a 20oz Coke bottle).

The apartment I am staying in is modern, with a laundry machine and internet access and western toilets. The man owns a factory and the woman works as a secretary. Their mei mei (little sister, who is actually a cousin) lives with them and attends university and dreams of going abroad someday. Asked if they prefer to live here or in Linxia, the couple say Linxia, where it is quiet and slow-paced. At this point, though, it seems that for now, there is no going back.

I will be off tonight for Zhangye, as I head west on the Silk Road.

From Langmusi to Lanzhou

There is something about the rhythm of travel that often makes a single day feel like two separate days. Perhaps it is the sheer amount of free time one possesses. At times, too, it is the fact that the middle of the day is spent on a bus, and, especially here in China, the morning and late afternoon can find you in two places distinct in food, scenery, and dialect. That means that having not written an update on things for two or three days means conveying four to six days of experience and thought which is just about impossible to do.

I'll give it a shot, though. [That's why we admire him so! --ed.]

On Monday I took a morning bus to Xiahe. There is no direct public bus that makes this trip (you must first transfer in Hezuo), but I was fortunate enough that there was an empty bus making the return trip to Lanzhou and which would stop off in Xiahe for anyone ready to pay 50 RMB (6 USD and change) [I linked "RMB," for "renminbi," because Alan refers later in this post to "yuan." As you'll read, renminbi is the term for China's official currency and RMB is often used to designate Chinese money. Yuan is the term for the base unit of a currency, akin to the U.S. dollar (USD), and seems to be commonly used when referring to money matters. The official international abbreviation for Chinese currency is CNY.--ed.] There were about 6 of us, three Americans. One of the Americans is of Chinese descent, and a graduate student at Harvard. She is doing her thesis paper on a group of Chinese in northern Gansu province who started sneaking across the border to Mongolia at night to harvest tiny scorpions which were then sold to people in Guangzhou province for medicinal purposes. As they are paid by the jin (Chinese version of an ounce or pound), an incredible amount were harvested. The local ecology was being destroyed in Mongolia and in the area in China, while the economy was being depleted because everyone was too tired to work well in the day and the scorpion business was so much more lucrative. Apparently these people are all in rural areas and they are doing everything they can to make their children's lives better, sending them as far as 80 km away to school meaning that during the school year, they don't see their children too often.

Back to the day in question: The bus trip started off in the usual manner (late). We were set to leave at 7:30 and were on the road by 8. The first part of the road was paved and wonderful to savor for bones rattled by so many bad roads. Then, just as I was beginning to think that I might for once have a pleasurable driving experience here, we were pulled over. Every car transporting something was stopped at a crossroads. The reason, it seems, was that to drive in that particular part of Gansu province, the driver must have a special permit. Ours did not. Now, everyone knew the outcome would be that some money would change hands, but even that took about an hour. The most interesting thing was to see our driver and the other Chinese passengers in our bus sitting in the middle of the road setting 100 yuan bills out like they were playing cards, counting out to see if they had enough for the permit and any extra that was required to pass hands.

Following that, our driver warned us to move closer to the front as we were about to experience 60 km of bad road. At least we were warned this time. We drove through the many grasslands that surround Xiahe. We saw some sheepdog watching a herd of sheep. We saw another herd of sheep on a distant mountainside, looking like a field of wildflowers. The skies were deep blue and the clouds puffy white and again, the scenery just about compensated for the road that three times sent me flying out of my seat, my head just about cracking the ceiling.

As it turned out, we were driving into Xiahe the back way, which took us through the Sangke Grasslands, which is one of the main tourist sights in the area, and for good reason. After arriving in Xiahe, I met up with a friend of the family I spent the first week with. She was in Xiahe with her nephew. After lunch and putting our stuff in a cheap hotel, we hired a car to drive us back out to Sangke. She was surprised when I told her we had already been through there, as most cars come from the opposite side of town. We rented ponies and rode along a dirt path for about half an hour. Then we just walked and picked flowers and enjoyed the perfect weather.

We headed back into town at around 5 or 6 and stopped at a Tibetan style restaurant for dinner. We had Tibetan specialties. One of them, I forget the name, had a consistency not unlike that of cookie dough, and was delicious. The yak meat was tough and just about unchewable. The sour yak milk was also a bit tough to consume, but the dumplings and yogurt were excellent. After that, the woman I was with bought 52 yuan [CNY from here on out--ed.] worth of fruit. That would be about 7 USD. This bought her two full bags of peaches, a bag of grapes, and three full watermelons. We then took this to Labulengsi (Labrang Monastery), which is the main attraction of the town. It is the largest Tibetan Buddhist Monastery outside Tibet, and to hear the sounds of the prayer wheels turning as the sun fades is to know peace. What was really great, though, was seeing three little kids use one of the larger prayer wheels as a merry go round, standing on the base and hanging onto it with one hand while turning it as fast as they could.

Anyway, our three-wheeled motorcycle taxi took us in amongst the monks' homes, a village of sorts within the monastery. She had bought the fruit to give as a gift to one of the head monks of the place, and thus it was that I found myself inside his tiny home drinking tea and playing with a kitten as the woman spoke to the monk's secretary (a younger monk). It turned out that that monk was not set to be back until later that night, and we probably wouldn't get to see him. What we also found out was that the next day (this morning it is hard to believe) the third highest monk (two behind the Dalai Lama himself) was set to be at the monastery. We saw him today, getting in and out of his car, and being led into the main building. There were a few TV cameras, a whole lot of monks, and an assortment of people from town, not to mention the tourists like me who just happened to be there.

At about 11 this morning we took a bus to Xiahe, which is where the woman I am with was born. The bus trip was awful again, although the change in the surrounding was interesting to see. Things became drier, and we saw more and more Muslim men and women along the road. Also, there was straw everywhere, piled along the road, in fields, spread across the road. This was pretty funny, really, as women would try to stack as much as they could before the next car would come by. We came pretty darn close to hitting one of them, in fact.

Xiahe itself was a pleasant surprise, and I would really like to go back on my return from the west (we were only there for the afternoon). There are more than 3,000 mosques in the Xiahe area, some looking like they belong in the middle East, others built more like traditional Chinese temples. With so much dust and dirt along the road, I really felt like we were in an outpost. Add to this small stores lined with pots and pans, or a Muslim man making keys, or a store selling handmade brooms, and endless piles of fruit under bright colored umbrellas and it felt as if the heart of the city beat to the drum of small time commerce.

Also of note were a few buildings filled with coal, and whose store fronts were hidden by even larger piles of coal. The main road was paved, but all the side streets were not, and many of them disappeared off at angles akimbo, enticing me, making me wish I had an afternoon or two to explore. As it was, I went first to the woman's childhood house, where her mother and sister live, as well as her nephew. Her daughter was there as well. It was down a small, narrow, dirty lane, but inside was a small but beautiful garden around which the complex was built. One small room had nothing more than 4 chairs, a table, and a Mahjong set...I want that room. As usual, the hosts were extremely ke qi (polite) enticing me to eat several juicy peaches (1 jin about 2.5 CNY, or .30 USD). Then we hired a few taxis and made the rounds of a few of the more important mosques. At two of these sights, I was led around by area government officials who at some point had joined our party, which made me feel quite important.

After we said good-bye to them [the officials--ed.], we drove about 25-30 km out of town to a small city called HeZheng. Here we visited a museum holding a number of fossils found in Gansu Province. After this, the woman's daughter, sister, mother and nephew headed back to Xiahe and we were on to Lanzhou.

I am convinced that the first thing that should be done here to improve driving is to eliminate or make illegal the honking of horns. Even as I type from a 24th floor apartment, I hear horns ringing through the night. The thing is, it seems drivers think that as long as they honk a horn at a slow car or a biker or a person that they do not need to brake and that a lane change is their right. Today, our driver three times passed a car that was passing another car in a two lane road.

Anyway, the first part of the drive took us through an interesting landscape and several small towns. Thanks to dirt sidewalks and Muslim men with small white caps and tiny square white goatees, and thanks to sheep running out into the road (almost causing an accident involving us), and thanks to the deep-folded dry mountains dotted with green vegetation, and thanks to the houses built from dried mud brick and faded red brick, it felt like we might have been in the desert already. [It seems Alan is a very grateful person this day.--ed.] I would have thought so except for the 8-10 high stalks of corn everywhere in sight. Again, there were stacks of straw everywhere, and this time we saw a few three-wheeled motos stacked so high with straw as to resemble elephants. One moto's stack stretched from the edge of the road to the middle of the line, and when we passed it, only the driver's feet were visible as the straw was stacked over his head as well.

Then we were onto a wonderful, smooth highway. The mountains became redder and less vegetated. They rolled up and back and away deep into the distance, a few towns tucked amidst the folds. The we were going down a slow hill and descending into Lanzhou, a city of 1.5 to 2 million. Walking the streets tonight amidst the noise and people and 20+ story high buildings, the glow of neon upon me, I felt almost as if I was back in Taipei.

So, that's where I am now, in Lanzhou. I am washing my clothes, thank God, and making some preparations for the trip out west. I will head to Zhangye two nights from now. [Didn't find an article for Zhangye directly, but this link whets your appetite for Alan's tracing of the Silk Road--cue the Yo Yo Ma CD, mom!--ed.]

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention about today. There was a moment, while at the monastery, in one of the prayer buildings, hung with silk banners, dim in the hazy light, where a beam of sunlight came through the door, cutting the room in half, landing upon one of the prayer mats in the center of the room. The floor was wooden and creaked just the tiniest bit with each small step. There was dust in the light of the sun. It was a moment that passed, and a moment that will be forgotten. For the moment it existed though, it was like time stopped and nothing ever needed to be done again.

Monday, August 08, 2005


As I have been walking all day, I thought I would take a bit of a rest before following a small river out to a place where I saw some kids swimming before. When I saw them I was descending from a road that led me out to a town nestled in a valley about 4 km or so away from Langmusi. The walk led past a monastery and out into rolling grasslands, and for most of the walk I felt like the only people on Earth were a few cowboys and me. The town I walked past rolled down the slope of a hill. Cattle and sheep and dogs were fenced in by thin barbed wire fences and fences made of jagged planks of wood. With the red roofs of the homes and smoke drifting into the air it was a scene out of a Christmas movie (well, minus the snow) or some other idyllic situation.

Another part of the same walk took me up to the sky burial ground above the monastery. This is where bodies are disposed of. I did not see the ritual, and in fact I did not exactly intend to walk into the area. It was when I looked down to see what appeared to be part of a blackened hip bone that I realized where I was. Then there was a finger joint, two skulls, and an entire spine still attached to a third skull. These were lying amid wildflowers and old fabric and small pieces of trash. As I hurried to return to the trail that would lead me back to the main horse trail between the two towns, I stepped over the lower half of a jaw bone. None of this was particularly horrific, mind you. I just felt like I was in a place I should not be.

As I was walking back from a small hill overlooking vast and endless grass covered hills, and was passing the village again, two boys came running up calling to me. They immediately asked me to take their picture. Their faces and hands were filthy, but as soon as I took out my camera they posed as if they have been in front of cameras their whole lives. In fact, they said, they have their picture taken by passing foreigners just about every day. They walked back with me to Langmusi and for the first time this trip I felt a little bit on guard, despite how young the kids were. This was the second time a couple of children approached me like this today, and it is obvious that they are growing accustomed to a foreign presence here, and from the mere fact that they asked me if I was a "you qian ren" (rich man) tells me that maybe when they are older they won't be so satisfied with the life they have here. What a difference between the people here and those in Ruoergai, who for the most part were hesitant in front of the camera, at least until they saw someone else have theirs taken first.

Langmusi is a beautiful town. On one side are mountains that remind me a lot of the Flatirons in Boulder. Then there is the constant haze of smoke rising over the town, from chimneys made of brick and corrugated metal, from incense at the temples, or from wood burning stoves in restaurants. The mix of odors--wood smoke, incense and excrement (animal, and I suspect human as well)--is intoxicating. The sounds as well, of bells, and horse hooves, of Tibetan chatter and birds. On my first walk this morning, I went behind the other main monastery in town, along the White Dragon River. I walked past a few tents, past a manmade waterfall and a big pool of clear water and then into a narrow opening that led into a narrow valley between two sides of steep pine covered hills. Straight ahead, the mountains were taller and more imposing. While walking along the river (more a creek, really), crossing back and forth over it, the only sounds present were the birds, the water, my breathing and my steps. At one point I heard behind me a haunting melody being sung in Tibetan. Later I saw the man, walking along in a leather jacket, his hands stuffed deep in his jacket pockets as he walked along. He came from Ruoergai and had just arrived in town today. A nice man whose voice will stay with me for a long time.

Langmusi reminds me a bit of Sarajevo, with dirty streets and a mix of religions with mountains forming an imposing and breathtaking backdrop. There just happen to be a lot more tourists here than there were in Sarajevo (which is a shame because that is a beautiful place, and I quite hope to return someday). The Chinese tourists stick out like a sore thumb, about as obvious as the other foreigners here. Accordingly, there are several hostels and restaurants lining the main street, places with names like the Nomad Hostel and Ana's Cafe (something like that). Apparently, several places are following the lead of a place called Lesha's which I know is written up in Let's Go China, and serve Yak Burgers and apple pie and omelettes and coffee and a variety of other foreign friendly dishes.

It is small wonder though. Any place where you can walk for twenty minutes, be surrounded by jaw dropping vistas and feel like you are the only person on earth is a place anybody would want to come. And besides that, if you don't want to eat in a restaurant crowded with fellow travelers, you can always pop into the place I ate lunch in today, dimly lit with a concrete floor and old, scratched wooden tables. The table surrounded two furnaces where blackened tea pots sat steaming. A monk watched me write in my notebook and in the backroom, unseen, a group of Tibetan men had what sounded to be a horrible argument until they all started laughing loud, uncontrollable laughter. Never mind that the beef noodle soup was too oily or that the green tea a bit weak, and with too much sugar. They cost .45 USD altogether, and to experience that kind of ambience was worth a whole lot more than that.

Now my legs are rested and I am ready to walk again. The sun never came out today, but I am hoping the same sort of haze that descended upon the evening returns in the next few hours. I'm a sucker for atmosphere.