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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A head full of smog

It is not a good thing when you can just make out the skyscrapers less than a mile away, when the edges of the building just cut into the brown smog clinging to everything in sight. It is worse when the temperature is well above thirty [86F--ed.] and the humidity feels like it is squeezing every last drop of fluid out of your body.

With these conditions outside I set out this morning to see the Large Goose Pagoda and the Little Goose Pagoda, which is larger than the large one. Go figure. Anyway, when I woke up I was in bright spirits having caught up on a lot of photo-related work last night. There was an edge to my good mood, though, as I was awakened by a TV blaring at full volume down the hall. When I went to find the room, I found the guilty TV was located in a room devoid of people which somehow made me more angry about the whole affair. After turning the volume off, I went back to try to sleep...not successful.

As soon as I started out, though, things just seemed not to be clicking. I found a public bus to the first pagoda, which was great. But when I got there, I just didn't want to go in. I decided to go to the other one instead. Then I had to walk around for more than a half hour trying to find change for a ten yuan bill so that I could get on a bus. Then I got on a bus that goes to the other pagoda, but that was going in the wrong direction, and so another half hour until getting to a stop that had the right bus going in the right direction. Then once at the pagoda, it took about 2 minutes to find the entrance, and by then my head felt just as if a huge cloud of dirty air had been pumped inside. I was almost ready to quit.

I met some Swiss and German travelers then and that helped as we sat at the Pagoda and chatted a bit. We had a nice lunch together and a much needed beer. Then we walked back towards the city walls and into the center part of the city. It should be said that the parts of the city outside the wall, the parts I saw today were quite dramatic in how devoid of character they were. The only way in which things differed from a Saturday afternoon in July in Taipei were these: there was more traffic, and worse drivers. The sidewalks were dirtier and there were fewer air conditioned buildings in which to seek refuge. There is no beach around here to escape to.

After parting with those folks, I returned to the Muslim quarter planning on taking some pictures. For the first time in a week or two, though, I found myself uninterested in anything around me. I still enjoyed walking the narrow lanes and absorbing the atmosphere but I felt disengaged from the scene, unable to muster natural smiles or responses when stared at or spoken to, unable to muster the energy to contemplate potential portraits. I did come across a few nice places after awhile. After passing a wedding party packing up a truck full of gifts, I came to a mosque that is in the process of being built (another mosque looking more like a temple than one's normal conception of what a mosque would look like). Though the building is quite new, and the paint fresh, it was nice with just the workers walking in and out carrying large slabs of concrete or marble.

After leaving there I came to a Buddhist temple which is also in the process of being renovated or remodelled. To get in I had to walk along a dirt path through the construction site. Inside, I felt compelled to stop. There was a light smell of incense and of freshly chipped wood. A few old Buddhist women walked around doing chores. The workers were high on the main part of the temple hammering and sawing. There was an occasionl conversation around, and a dog barking. I sat on a wooden bench and studied some new Chinese words, taking my time while writing each character, focusing on the strokes and the meaning of the word. Finishing this, I felt better again, though still in no mood to try to engage people.

I was further bolstered by the unexpected smell of detergent, strong and clean coming across an open area, and cutting through the dust hanging in the air. A woman was kneeling maybe twenty feet away handwashing something in a small tub, and getting such a strong whiff of her laundry soap from so far away in an area so full of rubble and dirt seemed something of a small miracle.

It is 6 now, much earlier than I would prefer to use the net. However, it is still hot, and I hope this will lead into a burst of energy that will carry me through a session of writing. The thing I fear most is that my brain is just overworked from trying to write and study and do the photography thing. I don't want to have a burn out with three-and-a-half months left on this trip.

So, tonight the answer, I hope, lies in going out for some drinks and checking out a bit of the Xian nightlife. Tomorrow night I will take a night train to Pingyao and begin another two or three day stretch of large amounts of travel in an effort to take in a few places before landing on the coast in Qingdao. Hard to believe I was a long walk away from the Tajikstan border just over a week ago!

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