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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.


Anonymous Natalia said...

Shall we comment on what YOU do with your other hand while peeing?
Guess not...

The bathrooms in Bangladesh were much worse. Think that the ones at the international airport in Dhaka were holes on the concrete floor with unidentified large size bugs dancing in and out. Imagine the rest of the country.You get used to it... dear. My technique in those situations is to stop breathing and think about a greenfield on a sunny day. It worked pretty well.

11:11 AM  

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