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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.


Anonymous dad said...

I'm so pleased that you remembered your mother's birthday. I know she will be. I enjoyed the use of the 2nd person point of view in your post today. It is usually difficult to sustain that without starting to sound pretentious, but you pulled it off well. I am curious. Are you able to give hard copies of the pictures you are taking to those whose pictures you take. I'm sure those will be wonderful memories for them as well as for you in the future.

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Mom said...

thanks for the kind wishes, Alan
I, too, liked the change of pace of the second person. I do prefer the third, generally. I really enjoy your thumbnail portraits of the people you meet. I can almost see them. Can't wait to see your pictures!
(I'm also noticing a running stream of excremental commentary.....)

4:16 AM  

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