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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Zhongdian

Right now it is about 8 C outside but I am damn warm inside. Not inside the building but inside my belly.

In Zhongdian, here are your choices: 1) Eat at one of the many western and Chinese food cafes that fill the old town area, in nice ambience with wooden tables and Tibetan paper lamps hanging from the ceiling with a variety of loungy electronic music playing, paying extra for this ambience because the food is not worth it, or 2) walk a little ways away, to the small restaurant with concrete floor and dim lighting, where you either point at the veggies and meat you want stir fried or you can find one that has hot pot with pork and mushrooms and lettuce and tomatoes and tofu, and then, as a surprise, sliced potato at the bottom, and as you eat it you can listen to the girl working singing Tibetan songs just because she wants, and you can warm your hands over a little black iron stone with red glowing coals and listen also to the sound of the Tibetan men who are sharing their own hot pot. Guess which one I chose?

And as a bonus, a guy just walked in complaining about the sandwich he ate at one of those other places, saying it tasted like spam. Am I bragging? I'm not trying to. Am I happy? Yes. Oh...and for that big hot pot I paid 10 RMB. I bet he paid at least 15 for that sandwich. [Try harder, Alan.--ed.]

Anyway, I am happy. Zhongdian, right now, the days I have had, is just about perfect. Yesterday I walked a good 20 km, first out into the countryside where all the trees are colorful and mountains are snowcapped and cows eat amidst wide open plains that are a bit flooded from recent rains, but the grass show its colors, red and orange and yellow...took very cool pics of that. Tibetans walking by smiling, or driving by on tractors stacked in a ridiculous way with long logs and slowing, showing white teeth in bright red faces. Clouds dropping strange lines of mist over the town, over the mountains. Wow.

The second part of yesterday, walking twice up a hill behind the city, through a cemetery with graves somewhat overgrown, more colored grass dotted by bright blue flowers, tiny tiny things. And at the top, at a small monastery a million prayer flags draped everywhere, from tree to tree, through bushes, hanging low over the narrow gravel path, and light shining on golden leaves backdropped by a perfect blue sky. And no one there but wind and cows and a barking dog and a growing peace. The view in 360 degrees of mountains and the plains and old city with all the black tiled roofs and the new town spreading out...and I want to stay but that wind..when I stand at a small pagoda type pavilion the wind cuts through and down I go. After a nap taken while the camera recharges, running back up the hill because the sun is ready to drop. The sky bluer than before. And a monk, gazing off into the distance at that pavilion...a picture that speaks lots and lots of words.

At night, writing at my guest house, in a darkish room with a fire burning in a stove and low voices.

Today, I woke up a bit later, at 7:30, not wanting to leave my toasty heated bed. My body was sore from yesterday, or not sore but tired. A slow start then, breakfast of jiaozi soup and then an aimless walk because despite all of the cafes here, and despite the fact that a large number of people, tourists, get up early because of buses or the cold, it is impossible to find a place to drink coffee before 9.

Anyway, fast forwarding. No real expectations for the days beyond taking it easy with tomorrow's trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge in mind (meaning a few days of hiking). I walked again through the old town, admiring the variations of the Tibetan houses, intricate wood fronts with different carvings and colors, large red doors with dragon handles, wrought iron doors. Painted facades, bright colors and flowers. Never mind that by this time next year you will not be able to spit or flick away a cigarette without hitting a guesthouse/CD burning/internet/western/chinese/tradtional Tibetan food/yak butter tea place...with all the buildings going up and the smell of wood, and seeing several for rent, a tiny part of me thinks: wouldn't it be nice to get Natalia over here, to rent one of these and turn the first floor into a gallery to sell the pictures Iv'e already taken in China, and then the ones that would no doubt follow living in Shangri-La over the course of a full year, with all the seasons...Because with all the tourists coming and bound yet to come, and with all the other buildings either providing the same service or selling the same tourist trinkets, why not stand out a bit?

Anyway, then I went to a large monastery outside of town, accessible for 1RMB by bus number 3. Songzanlin Monastery. And there it was nice, with the golden tops standing out against another clean blue sky. Huge off-white buildings, or orange-yellow, dark paint around windows. And all over the place, because of the sun, shadows and brilliant light. A load of Chinese student tourists I guess studying art all around and drawing. A town falling down from the monastery on top of the hill. Monks and Tibetans praying and tourists pestering monks for pictures and all that go with such a place. From there I walked into the village nearby, where lots of kids were hanging around school, on lunch break, and little kids with big baskets on their back walking down muddy muddy roads. Low houses with muddy green lawns and manure and glutinous rice hanging to dry.

Getting back to Zhongdian, a pause, to recharge battery and to eat and then to sit in one of those cafes I've been bemoaning, but this one the cheapest one--really, only 5RMB for coffee compared to at least 10RMB in every other place I checked out (unless of course you get Nescafe, but even then, 6RMB) and besides, this place, a plate full of some kind of seeds and no pressure whatsoever from the nice nice Tibetan girl working who I don't think even expected me to order anything, as she gave me some hot water and those seeds and then went to a window table to read. Later, I saw her when I was sitting with some Tibetan women and a guy whose picture I had just taken (and which made my day, by the way...this one was really good) and she smiled and waved and then smiled and waved again.

After writing for about an hour and a half I was off again, after getting my camera. I headed first towards the new town, where Tibetan women wearing bright pink scarfs around their head walk with their hands behind their backs or in their pockets and have those baskets on their backs or sit and sell fruit mix with the Tibetan guys in dirty clothes who still look somehow so stylish - and really a lot of poor Chinese guys manage to do this and it makes me mad - and older Tibetan men with those off-white hats with orange bands that I commented on in a posted picture (and which I almost bought today, but 150RMB seemed a bit steep) and dressed like any old person Tibetans as well. Past all the new but nice buildings and stores and little markets and a girl singing karaoke very very badly I eventually ended up back near the old town. I headed towards the east then, along the perimeter of the old town. This took me near where the military guys here are posted and I watched some of them running in full uniform (including the dressy shoes worn with the green suits) and some in fatigues...a few photos. Then down some muddy roads and meeting some Tibetan guys and taking pictures and laughing and joking, etc. etc. The rest was just nice. After a brief conversation with a Swiss guy, and a bit on that in a moment, going up a ways to watch huge clouds turning pink and black and gray and weird as the sunset before coming back down and having that brilliant hot pot.

The Swiss guy was at least the thirtieth person this trip to ask me where I was from and say I did not sound American at all. I cannot tell you how many people are surprised when I say I'm from America, not because I'm traveling but because of the way I talk. I still find it strange. He also said we have strong accents. Do we?

So, tomorrow on to Tiger Leaping Gorge for a few days' hike. This is supposed to be a highlight of many people's trips to China. I guess it will have to be pretty great to beat some of the highlights so far, but we can hope...

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