Tag Archives: A-Two-Season-Trip

Travelogue 8: Three Ecstatic Moments

What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on January 11, 2015.

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Dear Travelogue Readers —
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For the last month I have been living in a hotel called Viraporn’s Place, here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Late at night I squirt my arms and ankles with pungent bug spray and sit in the courtyard to think, or write, or smoke a cigarette. Many nights Viraporn, who I know from the days when she ran a restaurant in Fort Bragg, will bring me grapes on a paper towel, or rose apples on a platter with a knife, or soybeans in a flimsy paper bowl. Yesterday she gave me a section of durian in a plastic sleeve, which I managed to finish even though it smelled like a heap of dirty socks set out to compost and tasted somewhere between minestrone soup and cantaloupe. But it’s not for the beggar to choose, and I was happy for the novelty — and also for the feeling of being cared for, of being in some way at home.

Aside from late-night fruit, my life here is deliberately bland. I wake up, put myself together, tidy the room, and head to a cafe just across the street from the hotel. Here I drink espressos and sometimes eat croissants with butter and marmalade while I tap away on my computer for four hours or so. Till the computer battery dies. I eat a late lunch, usually pad thai, at a restaurant called “The Chef.” The proprietors’ five-year-old daughter watches educational videos to learn English. Characters sing at the supermarket, or they sing about their families. Back at Viraporn’s I write till eight or nine. Over a dinner of khao soi I read my book, which is presently If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. Before bed I write and read; sometimes I watch a movie.
It’s not tourism or even travel, not in any meaningful sense, and it rarely offers up an adventure worth chronicling in these travelogues. Rather I’m consumed by my work — work I want to be doing.

Yet there are occasional moments of transcendence. Probably these occur with no greater frequency than in my life up to now, but the overriding blandness of most days means that when they do come, they burst forth with stark clarity and blinding beauty. When this happens I’m reduced to laughter or even tears as my heart thumpthumps and my senses tingle with a freshness and alertness I’d like to bring to every last experience, even the most trivial. And perhaps I am getting better at prolonging this state. In this installment of my travelogue I’ll chronicle three of these transcendent moments, along with the surrounding flow of time. I hope you enjoy it.
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Sincerely,
Jasper Henderson
12 December 2015
Chiang Mai, Thailand

TheWhiteFish

28 November 2015. The Black House, Chiang Rai

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Driving in Thailand is a fundamentally bad idea. Thai people are more than three times as likely to perish in a car crash than people in the U.S. are. This is the fourth-worst rate of all nations in the world, barely safer than Libya but considerably more dangerous than Iraq. The perils of driving here apply equally to farang(“persons of white race” according to the Thai government definition), who ride the backs of motorbikes in Chiang Mai with their crutches raised like empty flagpoles, who wander the streets wearing specially-breathable mesh slings on their arms and sticking plaster on their head wounds. If everyone weren’t smiling the idiot grins of those just returned from dawn yoga classes or three-day meditation retreats or “humane” elephant preserves, you might think Thermopylae had just let out. Well, it’s not quite that bad. But close!

A few days after arriving in Chiang Mai, my friend Asa puts me in touch with Li, who is living here for the year studying massage. We get coffee, reminisce about old times (we both lived in the same room our senior years in the Co-op), and with an almost-crazy generosity she invites me on a road trip she and a friend are taking two days later. I agree, and shortly thereafter I’m behind the wheel of a rented economy car, screaming down the left side of the road, terrified. At first I use my horn liberally, imagining I’m still in China, where people drive like maniacs but at least notify each other about it. In short order, though, Li points out the looks of demonic intensity that other drivers are giving me. No one else is honking. No one in the whole damn country honks — even when they’re about to crash into each other or run a pedestrian over! It’s rude to honk. Rather death than offend someone.

We arrive at the immense Singha hobby farm, an immaculately manicured estate that brings glory to the beer co-monopolist. There’s a free music festival tonight called, “Farmfest#4.” As we park the car we see five hot air balloons slowly drifting above the fields. One has the Singha logo and colors; another is in the shape of a pink pig. We eat greasy fried kale and blah green curry at the vanity restaurant. Then we dance and drink with countless young northerners as a procession of Thai Ke$has and Thai Drakes and Thai Psys prance around the stage.

The next morning arrives bright and loud with club music. It’s 7AM. Our tent is right next to the starting line for today’s mountain bike races. The sight of all these fit cyclists warming up and stretching notably worsens my hangover. We eventually make it to the city of Chiang Rai where we visit a tourist attraction called The White Temple. The vanity project of a Thai artist named Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, it’s a distressingly superwhite mess. It’s so much Gaudí-esque whimsy in the general form of a traditional Thai temple. Ornate plasterwork demons, gargoyles, bas-reliefs, and sculptures cover the temple and its bridges. They’re all equally, glaringly white, accented with shards of mirror. A voice from a loudspeaker yells at the throngs of tourists to keep moving. Inside the main temple the walls are painted with an iconographic progression from dark/evil to light/enlightenment. Light is personified at the far end by a mural of the Buddha. Dark is represented on this end by a postmodern pastiche of comic book heroes, Harry Potter, R2-D2, and the burning Twin Towers, which are encircled by two demon-serpents. The other end of one serpent is a gas nozzle. It makes me feel ill — I hate it — but the imagery is also fascinating in its way. Li and I stand there, pointing out different instances of pop culture that stand in for evil in this twisted pantheon, until an attendant asks us to leave.

WhiteTempleIconography

Li and her friend, who is also, distressingly, named Li, get massages while I write in my journal and eat french fries for the first time in months. Then we drive out to the Black House, which everyone calls the Black Temple for obvious reasons of symmetry and tourist marketing. The complex predates and possibly inspired the White Temple. It’s the project of another famous Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee, and I love this place. The main hall is a giant Thai-style audience hall. The walls aren’t covered with frescoes but have big window openings. The rafters stretch up seemingly forever, but the space is dark and cool, with a light breeze. Ornately carved wooden screens divide the space into quadrants, each dominated by a long, narrow table. Each table has a complete crocodile skin covering its length. Some also have python skins complete with head. Giant seashells. The pelts of wild cats. Strange paintings. Folk-art phalli. Posts adorned with antelope horns and elk racks and sculptures of the Buddha.

Around each table — and throughout the whole complex — are peculiar chairs. They’re beautiful and strange: assembled from eight or ten or fourteen swamp buffalo horns, with a leather seat. Mr. Duchanee must have acquired thousands of these horns. Some of the chairs have the height and regality of thrones, with decoratively swooping backs. Others are more low-slung, but each chair looks like just the thing a Cthulhu cultist would sit in.

After the main hall we wander through some of the other structures in the complex. We find giant woven baskets; ancient canoes; posts hung with deer skulls, antlers still on and cradling an old rifle above the skull. When I get tired, I sit at the edge of a small lawn with a black horse picketed in the center. Behind me I can see Mr. Duchanee’s private residence, which also looks like a temple. It’s surrounded by lush plant life and a small pond. In the pond three black swans float and preen, then waddle out of the water and turn up the landscaping. They are strangely iridescent creatures — no white swan has ever looked half so good. I call my friends over and we watch them, entranced.

Just before the complex closes for the evening, Li and I take a quick tour of its many other structures. Some are ancient huts rebuilt here, others tastefully modernist cabins. By the stream there’s a windowless concrete egg that looks like a Martian colonist’s pod. Most of these are closed off to visitors, but we stare through windows at a bear-pelt bedspread; a room with seashells geometrically arrayed on the floor, surrounded by a circle of scary-thrilling horn chairs; the most ornate mother-of-pearl inlaid table I can imagine; a tall-ceilinged room with skulls and horns of every species and size, pillars lined with shark jaws, all arrayed around one great horn throne. This last could be Satan’s audience chamber, if he had a really good interior decorator.

We come across a traditional raised Thai house, built on stilts. The cramped area underneath the house has been filled with heavy dinner tables, each surrounded by a dozen black-horn chairs. The placesettings have odd spoons and horn goblets along with large crystals, polished rocks, and small skulls. A shiver of aesthetic bliss runs down my spine. I imagine the madness that would be a feast at this table, either cultists or a crazy biker gang or poets from a different age. I stand for a long time, staring and dreaming.

A security guard chases us out of the place. We agree to return the next morning before driving to Pai — we need to spend more time at the Black House. But then we screw up counting how many days we’ve rented the car for, and we decide impulsively to drive to Pai that very night. We sleep in our tent on the side of the road. The next morning I come down with debilitating flu, and I barely leave bed for the next week. Misfortune falls on my two tripmates as well. Much later, Li tells me that she had a dream involving a triangle and when she woke up she knew that we had erred in not returning to the Black Temple. I’m sure she’s right.

MeAtBlackTemple

23 December 2015. The Courtyard at Viraporn’s Place, Chiang Mai

Last night another wave of depression crashes onto my back and holds me down, breath held, as I look through picture after picture of days past. Classic self-harm. Like with spicy food, I just keep eating, each new photo promising at least temporary relief. Hundreds and hundreds of photographs. I sleep like a drowned man and stay in bed past noon. This afternoon I can’t write anything except for an angsty journal entry on the uselessness of writing. I need stronger antidepressants than nicotine and espresso. It’s time for the hard stuff: a trip to the bookstore.

The medicine takes immediate effect. Bookstores keep dozens of your favorite friends on shelves, in alphabetic order! After a long browse I settle on three books:Quartet by Jean Rhys, Billy Budd and Other Stories by Herman Melville, and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. Before I launch in, though, I need to finish my present book, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Over lunch I read its last pages, including Clarissa’s meditation on suicide as a means of preserving and remaining in the experience of profound beauty, which otherwise can be so fleeting. (I’m appending this paragraph for interested readers [1].) Of course Woolf ended her own life in a sad echo of this passage. I am no fan of suicide, no. But Mrs. Dalloway’s soliloquy by the window — the way she is so flooded with joy or maybe something closer to equanimity or pan-perceptiveness — it’s a glorious and true-singing evocation of the euphoric feeling of transcendence. The topic of this travelogue! The reason why we love, why we keep on going. Also, for some of us at least, the reason we read and write. Virginia Woolf nails it.

Back at Viraporn’s Place I watch a movie and then head outside to dive into Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. When I was seventeen I read the first half of this book, but then I got stuck. The cover of my old copy has the title and the author’s name scrawled in brushy black ink over a sepia field interrupted by thin black lines radiating from a point beyond the rectangle of the book. The edition I’ve just bought features instead the front-end of a classic car rendered in matte white, matte black, and glossy black. It’s a sexy book. The sexiness of books as objects is important and underappreciated, though more about this another time. Before diving into the novel itself (I’ve decided to recommence on page 270), I explore the front and end matter, as one does. In the back I find a compendium of Bolaño quotations, an incomplete list of his other works, dozens of snippets lauding him, and the publishers have also reproduced here a manifesto that he wrote in 1976, twenty-two years before the publication of this novel. Titled “Leave Everything, Again” and translated by David Shook, it fills seven pages. I decide to read the manifesto first.

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First infrarealist manifesto
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“To the outskirts of the solar system there are four light-hours; to the closest star, four light-years. An unmeasured ocean of emptiness. But are we really certain that there is just an emptiness? We only know that in that space there are no luminous stars; by existing, would they be visible? And what if non-luminous or dark bodies exist? Could it not be that on the celestial maps, as on those of earth, that the star-cities are marked and the star-towns aren’t?”
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-Soviet science fiction writers scratching their foreheads at midnight.
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-The infrasuns (Drummond would say the joyful proletariat boys).
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-Peguero and Boris alone in a shanty room, presentient of the wonder beyond the door.
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-Free money.
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The first and second thoughts I had were coterminous: This isn’t how you write a manifesto, and This is exactly how you write manifesto. It’s all inscrutable and provocative and strange. It features Soviet science fiction. I’m hooked.

A few lines later I find the first suggestions for action: “(Search, not just museums house shit) (A process of individual museumification) (Certainty that everything is named, revealed) (Fear to discover) (Fear of unforeseen imbalances).” An exhortation to displace culture from official edifices onto the poet’s own self, no matter the consequences. The manifesto charges on and on, emphatic and confused, self-assured. Sometimes it exults, “-Complex reality, you dizzy us!” At other times it becomes bloody-minded and revolutionary, if also funny: “Like Saint-Just told me in a dream I had a while ago: Even the heads of the aristocrats can serve us as weapons.”

Infrarealists

What really gets me, though, is the youthful wildness that runs through the poem — a sense of excitement about poetry’s power combined with the desire to create anew and so revitalize what has become old, rigid, and stale.

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-A new lyricism, which begins to grow in Latin America, to sustain itself in modes that don’t cease to astonish us. The entry into substance is already the entry into adventure: the poem as a trip and the poet as a hero developer of heroes. Tenderness as an exercise of velocity. Respiration and heat. Disparate experience, structures that devour themselves, crazy contradictions.
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If the poet is mixed up, the reader will have to mix himself up.

                         “misspelled erotic books”
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You can see here the shift from poetic mission to the poetry-reader’s response to a new and heightened awareness of poetry in unexpected places. If there’s a single belief underpinning this manifesto, it’s a certainty in poetry’s power — that a true poem shifts the way you experience the world. I share this belief. Poems have changed my life on several major and countless minor occasions. But it’s easy also to forget about poems, especially in these distracted days, to forget about their power, forget to read them, forget to write them. A manifesto is a way of reminding, of remembering.

As I reach the end of Bolaño’s manifesto, I’ve been charged by so many resonant lines — “-Poets, let your hair down (if you have it) / -Burn your crap and begin to love until you arrive at incalculable poems / -We don’t want kinetic paintings but enormous kinetic sunsets,” — and filled with this burning energy of ambitious, burn-it-all-down youth that I’m laughing and reading in great gulps. The act of writing seems as exciting and dangerous and filled with possibility as it always has been, only I’d forgotten.

Here is the last handful of lines:

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-May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth. May it never kiss us.
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-We dreamed of utopia and we woke up screaming.
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-A poor solitary cowboy that returns to his home, which is wonder.
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              *
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To make new sensations appear—To subvert the everyday.
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O.K.
LEAVE EVERYTHING, AGAIN
       HIT THE ROAD

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It’s a recipe not for happiness but for poetry. And, as the young Roberto Bolaño generously, crazily reminds me, poetry matters.

The next day, Christmas Eve, I write my own manifesto, “Fuck Off We’re Working.”

TheBestWayToHurt-Recovered

1 January 2016, Rooftop Bars at Maya Shopping Mall, Chiang Mai

The New Year is greeted on a dark street in Chiang Mai by a knot of French and English speakers. William predicted hours earlier that we would end up celebrating it in a parking lot between his shared house and the mall. So we did. The francophones kiss each other on both cheeks and give each other wishes for 2016. The Americans kiss on the lips, but chastely, if that’s possible. When the French and the Americans embrace it’s awkward for everyone.

We continue into the unpleasant multiverse that is a contemporary nightclub. Strobing lights, lasers, thumps of sound, strangerfaces. To the south a half-moon rises like a bowl of café au lait, floating and not spilling on the table of the horizon because we’re so near the equator. I miss the jaunty angle it takes in higher latitudes. Further up in the sky, a drone banks back and forth, up and down, its camera ravenous and lonely. Drunk Thai people and drunk farang mix and separate. No one dances to the incoherent club-hop. I drink more. Someone in our group gets a Chinese lantern, and we light the pitchy ring of fuel. Before the lantern achieves adequate lift, we drop it off the side of the building. It lands on a catwalk and fire eats the thin paper. Someone pours the end of a beer onto it — it’s going to be a helluva year.

At some point I stand alone at the base of a low concrete amphitheater. I’m standing where a stage would be, but the light-towers are behind me, the beams roving brightly over the clusters of people sitting or standing in the amphitheater. I stand there watching three scenes.

1. Two men stand at an oblique angle to each other, gesticulating with their beers. One is carrying is carrying a long monologue. He wears a carefully shaped gruff of facial hair that I associate with the brogrammers who here term themselves “digital nomads.” The other is clean-shaven and blandly cute — he tries hard to listen over the throb of sound.

2. A white guy in his thirties looms over a Thai girl whose tight red dress clings to her large breasts and slim posterior like saran wrap. They seem to be in the middle of a negotiation. Probably sexual, possibly fiscal. She says something and points at the exit with her plastic cup, but when he takes her arm and tries to walk there with her, she stops him. She’s in control here.

3. Seated on one of the concrete shelves are a chubby-buff Thai guy and a white boy with the haze of a few days’ beard. Their legs touch, and they’re evidently involved in intimate conversation. At one point the Thai guy takes out a cigarette and goes to light it, but he notices the approbating look of his partner and puts the lighter away. The white cigarette stays in his hand like a prop — he gestures with it, folds his fingers around it in different configurations, forgets about it, remembers. They share a quick kiss and lapse into contented silence.

2. The woman in the red dress is now explaining something at great length to the man, who has bent over to put his ear near her mouth. He shakes his head in a sign of confusion, and she keeps talking. She holds a rectangular black clutch hard against her right wrist. The man straightens up and looks confused or perhaps a little disappointed.

1. The brogrammer is still talking at the other guy, who now looks a little bored, a little anxious to escape. He has turned to face the crowd below and runs his eyes from face to face. The brogrammer doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. He keeps talking.

3. The Thai boy has lit his cigarette and blows the smoke out in a narrow, careful cone. He’s smoking like an actress from the ’50s. His partner is leaning back on his elbows and watching carefully.

2. The white guy says something and reaches out to draw the Thai lady towards him for a kiss. She pulls away ever so slightly, tipping her head back and to the side so that her neck shows. A coquettish refusal. The man also pulls back. She smiles with what looks to be actual pleasure. They recommence their negotiation, or conversation, or whatever it is they’re talking about over the loud strobes of sound and light.

This all unfolds as I stand there, watching this diorama, trying to remember each gesture, each face, the shiver and thrill of these strange people with their unfathomed lives and mysterious smiles. Their hidden stories that you could almost reach out and touch. Almost.

The prime factors of 2016 are 25, 32, and 7. In my opinion, these don’t have anything on the crazy numerological power of 2015, which reduces to just 5, 13, and 31. But all indications are that it will be a good year for creeping on people.

Most of our group leaves the club and heads to a party in a different brogrammer’s big, tasteless house. On the third floor people sit around a TV singing karaoke. I flee to the rooftop balcony and swig wine from an open bottle, steal a pack of cigarettes off the table. I fill a comically tall glass of box wine and then abandon it. Soon Amélie and I leave the party and walk back to William’s house, where her motorbike and my backpack are. The place is locked up, though, and no one’s picking up their phones, so I put myself to sleep on the front porch. I wake at five — cold, half-drunk, half-hung-over. I decide to give up. As soon as I get going down the street back to the old city I run into William and company coming the other way. He lets me into his house. I take my bag and walk back to the old city past monks doing their morning ablutions, trash men emptying the last few bins, and a few of the wretched, like me, who are greeting the new year with bleary eyes and dreams of bed, which I eventually reach.

Bougainvillea-Recovered

I’d like to thank Li for taking the picture of me at Baan Dam and letting me share it here — and for being my Chiang Mai friend and taking me on this adventure to Chiang Rai and Pai.

Travelogue 7 – The Amateur Mountaineers


What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on December 12, 2015.

 

HT-Hearthsmoke


Dear Travelogue Readers —

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It’s been a couple of weeks since my last update, and much has happened, though it also feels like I’ve been standing still. I made it to Thailand, spent a week laid low by the flu, and for the time being I’m living in Chiang Mai, a northern city filled with other foreigners and ex-pats. Life here is slow and easy, which makes for a boring travelogue. I’m writing a lot, though, and I still have a few stories worth telling from China.

The following trip took place just over three weeks ago, but it was only a few days back that I realized I had something to say about it. Find my efforts below — I hope you enjoy them.

I’d like to thank Hannibal for taking several of the photographs in this installment, and for offering that I could use them. I’ve credited him at the bottom and provided instructions for how to access higher-resolution versions. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.

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Sincerely,
Jasper Henderson
12 December 2015
Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

HT-Donkeys

 
We’ve been walking for more than eleven hours, and now we’re halfway up the last moraine before the pass. The sun is setting on the other side of the mountains. Its rays streak overhead to paint the hilltops we’ve already rounded red-gray and burnt yellow, but no heat reflects back to our crease. Instead we’re trying to keep our footing on pebbles embedded in ice. We pause for a long time, me twenty feet further up the slope, and we talk. Hannibal tells me about a party he threw in the co-op his senior year of college, during Boston’s worst winter in fifty years, when the snow was piled five feet deep between the sidewalks and the street. But in the Dudley Co-op the radiators were going full blast, and there was fresh bread, and he went out and bought an icecream cake. It sounds like a different planet.

He finds some internal reserve of energy and starts moving up again. I also push up, finding each footing in the blue glow of snow and ice and stepping into it, willing my feet not to slip and drop me. There’s maybe one hundred feet to the pass. Hannibal catches up to me and surges ahead and out of sight. I think I hear him whooping and screaming, but I don’t feel like going any further, so I stop and stand there for a while, thirsty and tired. A minute later Hannibal reappears and climbs down towards me a little ways. He’s encouraging me to keep going and make it to the top. I push, each step taking real thought and energy. Eventually the slope flattens a little bit, and there’s just a snowfield to cross. In order to make a solid footing you have to stomp your foot into the snow. Even so it feels like you might slip at any moment.

Somehow I make it to the top, and the wind is screaming. Hannibal says into my ear a Tibetan phrase that he thinks I should shout to celebrate our triumph, and I rather pathetically yell it into the gale. Then I forget the words. It takes me a long time to get my windbreaker on. We take a few pictures, look at the sunset. After a few minutes we start climbing down as fast as we can.

T7FinalAscentToPass

Hannibal and I first walked together four-and-a-half years ago, after I breezily invited myself along on a trip he was taking in northwest China. Somehow in that summer we became friends, and we also learned that we get along mysteriously well on the trail. Walking together is a curious sort of companionship — you sleep right next to each other, take every meal together, and together you confront the road. Sometimes maybe one person walks a hundred feet ahead for an hour, but for the most part you’re right next to each other, all the time. It’s an intense companionship, even at times a shared solitude, an isolated little world of two. What makes the whole endeavor possible is that you are united around a common purpose: the journey.

A good comparison, I think, is to Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick. At the beginning they share a bed but little else. Ishmael is terrified of the tattooed savage with his razor-sharp harpoon and strange little totem. Soon they warm to each other and develop a bond of shared purpose, spending the rest of the novel looking out for each other. It’s a friendship built on shared toil not taken too seriously. Also, the backdrop of the novel: the ocean, the great, blank sea. Walking has some of this sense of adriftness, of slow movement through the void.

Life, it increasingly seems to me, is a long scrabble for meaning and purpose — if you’re lucky, maybe happiness — in an essentially meaningless medium. Walking just makes this more literal. Your possessions are what you can carry on your back, and you rely on them to survive. You move between zones of relative comfort, hotels and living rooms and monastery refectories, and places of greater discomfort, drainage ditch bivouacs and windblasted peaks and long, straight, dust-choked roads. As days pass you sometimes have the illusion of progress, but this is a mirage, an invention. The day you set out you’re just a human with a satchel on a road, and the day you return you’re still a human with a satchel on a road.

The progress invention is part of what makes us human. We tell stories about our trips, call them adventures, imagine that there was a narrative and sometimes even a plot. We are so used to stories that we often set out on a trip with just such a purpose in mind. In the ugly phrase in vogue today, we set out to “make some memories.” You can see it in IMAX clarity with a book like Eat, Pray, Love, its itinerary (Italy, India, Bali) and narrative (hedonism heals in the sensual Orient) baked into the title and even into the book proposal, which sold for a $200,000 advance before Elizabeth Gilbert took the first step of her trip. We tell ourselves stories not in order to live, as Joan Didion would have it, but because we’re ravenous for meaning and essential to our very nature is the constant groping for it.

Back on the topic of companionship while walking, it strikes me that the more felicitous comparison might be to Waiting for Godot. Two men stand in a barren landscape, talking. Both go back and forth on the very possibility that something meaningful could happen. One (Vladimir/Hannibal) has a small bladder and is often going off to pee. The other (Estragon/Jasper) spends a lot of time struggling with his shoes. They don’t have enough food, but there’s nothing they can do about it. The situation seems helpless — Godot will never arrive, the men will never find meaning or love again — but there is consolation, though they often can’t see it, in that they have each other’s company. I guess in some respect this is a love letter to Hannibal.

T7HannibalWalking

We slip out of Xining like men running away from their pasts. The bus drops us in a dusty hot Muslim town halfway along the new highway to Rebgong. Along the Yellow River, actually a reservoir in this stretch, butchers in dirty canvas tents saw merrily away on rib-splayed cows amid the buzz of flies and small children. We take a car up to a small monastery where a month before Hannibal made friends with the cook. Most of the monks are in the assembly hall chanting a long text and periodically breaking into a clangor of drum banging, horn honking, and cymbal clattering. It’s the most musically talented monastery I’ve yet had the privilege of visiting.

With a few free hours before sundown we walk to the neighboring monastery, which Hannibal had found strange and off-putting, albeit with great views, the last time he visited. We find the whole place seemingly abandoned in the middle of an ambitious construction project. Carved wooden screens lean in great stacks under the eaves. Piles of garbage taller than I am release scraps of plastic and newspaper that blow across large cobbled courtyards in the evening breeze. The prayer halls are all locked, and the place has the feel of one of those half-abandoned Soviet resorts you sometimes stumble into in Russia. There was once great ambition and now there is great emptiness.

In the entrance alcove of one of the locked prayer halls we find a thangka of Wrathful Shambhala. The enemies of Buddhism are being ridden down by a horde of the righteous. If you examine the bad guys’ corner of the painting you find them suffering the depredations of undead buggery and a rain of sodatic/sotadic daggers. (The next day Hannibal distracts me from the drudgery of our hike with a comic lecture on these two possible adjectival derivations, both meaning “of or relating to buggery.” [Buggery itself coming simply from “Bulgarian” and referring to a 16th-century imaginative conception of Eastern Orthodox sexual practices.] Sotadic is an adjective first formed by Richard Burton from the name of the lewd Greek poet Sotades, in order to describe a climatic zone [kind of arbitrarily following the Tropic of Cancer] that he found to be particularly filled with and accepting of homosexuality and pederasty. Sodatic is an adjective invented by Hannibal from the name of the Biblical city of Sodom, which was famously blasted by Old Testament God because of its lascivious and unrepentant libertinism. The point being that both words mean the same thing and are anagrams but have pleasingly disparate derivations.) Having now seen this fate worse than our own we walk back to our livelier and less trash-strewn monastery to eat dinner, listen to a half-hour of bombastic horn-blasting, and fall into an early sleep.

 

T7SkeletalBuggery

We wake before our alarms and drink as much water as we can stomach. For some reason we’ve only brought a single one-liter Nalgene, which we’re supplementing with a 400ml Tropicana tangerine juice bottle. We can carry just under a liter-and-a-half of water, which is not exactly the Sierra Club recommended water provisioning for a multiday hike through frozen alpine conditions, but whatever, we’re each carrying a bottle of Coke too, which yeah, soda pop is dehydrating. We both know it’s bad planning, so we’re pregaming the hike with some water chugging. Eventually we put on our shoes, leave the dark monastery, and visit the nice new privy they’ve built on the edge of the ravine.

Sometime later we start walking. The stars are spread luxuriantly on this cloudless, moonless early morning. We cross little frozen creeks that glimmer mysteriously in the starlight as chill winds whip down their streambeds. Eventually we notice that the monastery behind us has become a constellation of distant, lighted windows. We round the off-putting, under construction monastery, which in the dawn half-light is mysteriously overrun by donkeys. After a while the road turns west, towards the mountain range we’re planning to cross. We breakfast on stale bread and strawberry flavored Oreos.

The sunrise is a crown of rose and electric orange and aquatic blue-greens smoldering over distant ridgelines. Nearby hillsides are blanketed in hearthsmoke and the canyons echo with cockcall. We walk. Sometime in late morning we run into a Tibetan road crew carrying big bags of rice and other foodstuffs and shovels to a remote camp. They’re cheery in spite of their bulky loads, which make my strappy, endlessly adjustable backpack seem an outrageous luxury. A few minutes later we’re visited an old yakherd, who squats next to us as we snack and gives Hannibal complex pathfinding advice. Hannibal encourages me to offer him a cigarette, but when I hold one out he explains proudly that he quit last year. I smoke alone, laid out on the knolly, stubby grass, angling my body to absorb maximum sunlight.

Later the path disappears entirely and we cross a hundred yards of shin-deep, crusty snow. At the other side there’s a saddle with wind gusting over it. Hannibal quickly lies down, pulls his bulky big jacket over his head, and falls asleep. I wander around, finding the remains of a summer herding camp: dugout earthen hearths, a scattering of dried yak chips, a worn-out canvas jacket, and busted pair of shoes. I give it a minute and then go back and wake Hannibal from what looks like a blissful nap. There’s still a lot of ground between us and the pass.

We cross the new road they’re putting in. We’ve been talking for hours about the ancient pleasure of following a footpath, remembering favorite paths, enjoying steep hillsides unspoiled by roadcut. We cut away from the road and find the footpath again, though now it goes up rather precipitously, and we start feeling the altitude. Altitude sickness in its milder forms is largely mental, but that doesn’t make its effects any less real. We take fifty steps and then stop for a minute and catch our breath. Then we take another fifty steps and repeat. Walking becomes labor, and the regular interruption makes it drudgerous work. The dun hills are freckled with patches of low brown scrub. As we cross slopes the temperature fluctuates wildly, still and sweaty-hot in the middle of a bowl but wind-whipped and chill on the spines of ridge. We’ve run out of water.

Finally we can see the pass and begin making our final approach. Here the path is little more than a yak track. It contours around lobes of hill, sometimes going sharply up and other times descending as much as a hundred feet. The parts going down we take almost at a run, worried as we are now about the lateness of the day and our high elevation. We pick our way over rockslides and hoof-pitted slopes made mud-slick by the late afternoon sunlight, but there’s nowhere even a trickle of water with which to refill our bottles. The east-facing slopes are meanwhile covered in thin snow, which is made treacherous by our exhaustion. Often the snow is coated in a thin crust of ice that has re-frozen in the afternoon shade. At one point I am feeling particularly nervous, looking down hundreds of feet of slick snow, when Hannibal falls with a yell. I worry that he twisted an ankle, but he pops up quickly, cursing. I catch up with him and he shows me where he bent the hiking pole he’s using: it caught in a crevice right as he slipped. We bend it straighter, and I pound the damaged section into its sleeve. We continue even slower.

As we approach the pass it seems like each round of hillside should be the last, but once we’ve picked our way around or over it another one is revealed. Our boots get covered in snow which then melts. We lose the path each time it passes into shadow and ice. We invent our way for a while and then find the path again, a hundred feet from where we’ve ended up. It sounds miserable, and by the end it was miserable. When we finally start pushing up the final moraine to the pass we look down and see the new, broad road terminating just a few hundred feet below. Halfway to the top, perched on pebbles and ice, Hannibal tells me about a glorious party in a warm co-op in Boston. We summit the pass before sundown, and then begin our parched, twilit descent.

 

HT-MeGazing

There’s a tendency in our culture, and maybe in our DNA, to glorify suffering. We have the cliché of the tortured artist, alone in her garret, sculpting from her sorrow a masterpiece. We see Achilles raging over Patroclus’s body, wracked with mourning and anger, a righteous and beautiful fury. Young Werther kills himself for love, and a dozen copycats follow his example and make the literary literal. This is part of the storytelling virus: it takes something elemental but essentially meaningless like suffering — the meaning of suffering is that one is suffering — tautology as truth — and grants it symbolic power, romanticizes it, ties it to other events divided by time from the suffering itself. Eventually we have a story in which suffering is a foil to future glory or redemption. And maybe after hearing the story we think that we understand something deeper about suffering itself.

I don’t mean to insult storytelling here. I’m an aspiring novelist, a teacher of poetry, and most certainly the narrative sections of this very essay have some semblance of plot and story to them. Only that lately a great skepticism of pat conclusions and hackneyed narratives has come over me. I don’t after all believe that suffering usually makes one a stronger, wiser person or even a better artist. It seems equally false to assume that a journey or adventure will lead to personal growth or some kind of conclusion.

I guess I’m not even really talking about the suffering of walking across a mountain range without enough water. I’m talking about this trip I’m in the middle of: five-and-a-half months spent writing in Asia. I not only don’t think that it should be burdened with meaning in the sense I’ve been talking about, I also emphatically don’t want it to be, which has the sound of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I embarked from San Francisco with a broken heart, as the woman I’d been loving and living with for almost four years and I broke up, went our different ways. This trip was selfish, in the strict sense that it was intended to help me focus on my writing and find the path I want to follow in the years to come, but it was also in some ways self-defeating, self-injurious. I had been frustrated with my writing, as the work of making money and keeping a home and having a social life left precious little time for sitting quietly in a room with a computer. I realized that if I didn’t start prioritizing writing right now, when my life was comparatively empty, it would never happen. But that life was also comfortable and filled with delight and, and, love. Art requires action; I had the opportunity to act; in so acting I caused my heart to break. This doesn’t mean that it was the right decision (if such a thing can be said to exist), nor does it mean I am on the path of growth or self-discovery or even artistic brilliance. Events occur, we make decisions, and sometimes we suffer.

It’s already a trope that the brokenhearted don’t want their hearts to mend. The Magnetic Fields’s “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” is a beautiful and funny parody of the feeling. But there’s something true I think in this desire to remain broken. My dad once told me that rather than mend a broken heart, you should embrace its shatteredness, should sledge it again, break it into a thousand, a thousand thousand pieces and then let each shard and speck glint and shine like the stars in the sky. Maybe it’s less hopeful, but then it also seems more possible. I think this is what I’m aiming for in my travels and my suffering rather than some narrative of recovery and healing. It’s a broken world, friends, but can’t we love it as it is, not trying to make it something else, not glorifying but accepting it?

 

T7SheepAndPrayerFlags

We scuttle down off the windy pass. As we drop one hundred, two hundred feet I start to prattle about all sorts of strange things, but my lips are numb so I have to keep repeating myself. I’m thrilling over the word debouch. We pick our way down a heavily eroded hillside — three-foot tall grass-topped hummocks subdivided into an archipelago by steep ditches filled with loose gravel. I tell Hannibal that once we get down to the saddle at the bottom I’m going to smoke a cigarette. We make it to the saddle but I hallucinate that a pile of rocks is a sleeping person or animal and refuse to approach it till Hannibal inspects it. “Just some rocks, Jasper.” Then I throw my bag down and take awhile finding my cigarettes. Finally I get one lit and try to enjoy it, but I’m too dehydrated and exhausted. I look over at Hannibal and notice that he’s fuming as the last glow of twilight fades away and we haven’t found water yet. I stub my cigarette out even though I’ve only taken a few drags and rise wobbly to my feet. I’ve got my headlamp on but its batteries are drained and it lets out a humorous, thin squiggle of light. We immediately walk down the wrong side of a drainage and have to backtrack.

Soon we reach a lumpy field and Hannibal says, “I’m going to get water from the stream down there. Can you pitch the tent?” I agree but can’t for the life of me figure out where he thinks there’s flat ground. He gestures at a lump and says, “Only our backs need to be flat, right?” I pitch the tent somewhere else that proves even lumpier, and he fetches water. When he returns having actually found water we’re both too tired to celebrate. Then I insist on using my iodine tablets to purify the water, which requires waiting for half an hour. Hannibal laughs at the tablets — he’s in a better mood after drinking his fill down at the stream — and then tells me that there’s probably Bubonic Plague in the water. We lie in our sleeping bags keeping the water from freezing with our body heat. When the water’s finally ready we drink it and for dinner eat disgusting two-day-old stuffed bread. We sleep.

The next morning we’re in high spirits as we walk across a mesa-like plateau with endless vistas of distant, shimmering peaks. Then we spend a few hours walking along a streambed hemmed by the high cliffs of the plateau. We run out of water again — this time it’s my fault. Eventually we end up on an endless, straight road across scrubland. It’s late afternoon by the time we reach the main road. We catch a bus to the town of Guide and take a room at its fanciest hotel, the only one that accepts foreigners. The room is stupidly opulent in all the ways that don’t matter (the bathroom has automatic lights that click off before you can finish pooping) and fairly uncomfortable in the ways that do matter (the front door is super-heavy and wants to shut on your fingers; the heat is turned up unbearably high). We get hotpot and can’t finish it. Back in the room we watch a crappy Chinese rip of the movie Kickass and go to bed.

We wake early and walk through the old city of Guide: tall walls looming over a freshly bulldozed wasteland. The wrecking crew didn’t even bother to clean up the bricks from the old courtyard houses and winding alleys they knocked down. Instead they’ve rebuilt in a vaguely historical fashion a single shopping street, now featuring angle parking. It’s impossible to write about this stuff without being cutely sarcastic and depressed. At the north end there still stands a temple complex complete with a temple tower. Hannibal is an expert in the history and meaning of temple towers, so it’s fascinating to finally visit one with him. It’s a glorious old building, quite tall, and it reminds me of a lighthouse. The whole complex, even the Garden of Literature, is empty, probably due to the 80-kuai entrance fee, about $12 USD. I ask Hannibal if there’s some kind of special rate for locals, and he says no, anyone who wanted to pray here daily would have to pay the entrance fee every single time.

We take a bus back to Xining, and the next day I fly to Bangkok.

 

T7GirlAtFestival


I’d like to credit and thank Hannibal Taubes for taking the first two pictures and the sixth, in which I gaze scenically out at the sunset after crossing the pass. If you’d like to enjoy these and the other photos at full resolution simply click on them and then follow the link above the picture that reads something like, “4567×1234.”

Two Tibetan Print Houses

What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on November 16, 2015.

T6-Textures

My last morning the monk and I struggle to communicate. I’ve told him that I’m going to hitchhike to Derge, a town famous for its traditional printing presses. He leans forward again and pretends to spread ink on a woodblock, mimes putting paper down, and then rocks forward again as if he was running a roller the length of the paper so that it will pick up the ink. “Yes,” I say, “I’m going to Derge.”

“No,” he says shaking his head, and he points at the floor. He pantomimes printing again. In this monastery? That doesn’t make sense. Only three monks live here. That’s not enough to run a printing press. This room, the bedroom of the monk I’m talking with, has two rug-covered sleeping platforms, a warm coal stove, a bare compact-fluorescent bulb dangling from the ceiling, and ornately painted paneling on all sides. This monastery’s central function is apparently to host travelers. The income from guests seems to be enough to support the monks, to buy butter lamps, and even to underwrite the purchase of a late-model red motorcycle that they keep in a disused storeroom. The monks lead a simple life here, cooking noodles for guests, shooing yaks out of the courtyard, going to the neighboring monastery for morning prayers. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a press here.

The monk stands up and gestures for me to follow him. I shove the remainder of my tsampa into my mouth, pray for saliva, and go through the pocket door and out towards the monastery’s only temple. It’s the tallest building in the walled complex, and it’s been locked the three days I’ve stayed here. He takes down the key from its secret niche and unlocks a padlock that chains the door to the flagstones. I follow him inside.

T5-GonpaAndMts

It’s dark, and the still air is cold but dry and musty. The fluorescent tubes flicker to light, strobing through greenish, unreal hues till they settle into a thin light. Wood rafters high overhead support the mud roof, and at the back of the chamber stand five tall Buddhas. The monk walks me over to the sidewall of the room. It is lined with tall shelves filled with thousands of paddle-shaped woodblocks. I take out a heavy block and look at the mirrored Tibetan characters rising from both sides of the plank. The chiselwork is exquisite: religious words in careful script, meant to be iterated a thousand, a thousand thousand times, to be read by students and chanted beneath great thangkas, meant to be read. Now they sit here, like relics, in a half-forgotten monastery.

We walk to the other end of the hall, where there are just as many shelves and blocks. One section is filled with broken and rotten shards of destroyed woodblock. They haven’t been thrown out but instead are preserved here, holy even in their fallen state. They remind me of genizot in Synagogues, where damaged or worn-out holy texts and even documents or letters containing invocations of God are stored before they can receive a proper burial. The Jewish God in written form is considered to be not only holy but also living and due all the respect accorded the human body. The most famous genizah, the Cairo Genizah, contained more than 300,000 Jewish documents and fragments when it was discovered, and these riches have allowed countless scholarly discoveries across many fields and given us a clear image of Jewish medieval life in the Islamic world. (My teacher James Russell once wrote a fascinating paper about a traveler’s multi-lingual word list found in the Genizah, and now I can report that if I were to make a traveler’s dictionary some of my most important phrases would be, “I don’t eat meat” and “Please take me to x.”) So these preserved shards of old Tibetan woodblocks, kept in the same temple as the entire ones, are not only aesthetically beautiful but evidence of a culture that respects its gods and its history. I ask the monk if I can take pictures with my cell phone, and he agrees, but the light is weak so they don’t come out very well.

T5-BrokenWoodblocks

We walk back out into the morning glare and talk about the history of this monastery. Now, I don’t speak any Tibetan and only a handful of words in Chinese. Likewise the monk speaks very little Chinese and no English. So we communicate by sign language and drawing numerals on our palms. It’s possible, even likely, that I’ve got some of this wrong.

In the early 1950’s, this monastery supported 300 monks. From history I remember that at this time_ the Chinese Communist Party had finally won the Chinese Civil War, forcing the Kuomintang to retreat to Taiwan. The Communists were eager to solidify their control of Chinese territory, and they suddenly had a surplus of idle troops. So they began sending soldiers into Kham. The region of Kham stretches through swaths of present-day Sichuan Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region, as well as smaller parts of Gansu, Qinghai, and Yunnan Provinces. The soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army encountered local resistance in Kham — I won’t go into it here. They also began disbanding monasteries, which were found to contribute nothing to the well-being of the proletariat while leeching valuable resources for the worship of gods that didn’t exist. In 1954 this monastery was destroyed, razed to the ground.

The monks were not, however, caught entirely unaware. They managed, with the help of local farmers and nomads, to smuggle from the monastery thousands of its precious woodblocks, along with certain important relics. They buried them all in secret and then commenced waiting for that day when the woodblocks could once again have pride of place in a temple. The intervening years were dark. In 1964, Chairman Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution, remaking — or unmaking — Tibet alongside the whole of China. When it ended in 1976, the immense majority of Tibet’s many thousands of monasteries had been destroyed, even the most remote ones. After it ended people started the slow work of picking up the pieces and rebuilding what they could. At this monastery, in 1983, people gathered to raise up new walls for a more modest monastery where the old one had stood. The next year they dug the woodblocks up from their hiding place and ceremonially returned them to the monastery’s temple. I am led to believe that it was an occasion of great joy and celebration for the entire community.T5-SavedWoodblockLibrary

This monastery is only a shade of what it must have been. Where once there were three hundred monks, now there are three. Where once it had been a large complex complete with its own printing press, now it is an empty courtyard with tall grass surrounded by five dormitory buildings and a temple. At full capacity it could maybe sleep eighty. And now the woodblocks sit, unused, rarely seen, waiting for a day when once again two men will sit across from each other, spreading ink, rolling paper, and producing copies of scripture for others to read.

Finally the monk and I just stand there in silence under the slanting morning light, imagining what must have been, glad that something of the past still remains. We both smile at each other. His smile is kind and sad. We shake hands. I go to my room to finish packing my bags and then walk across fields strewn with garbage, a light morning mist evaporating off of them, till I reach the main road.

T5-BrokenWoodblocks2

I start hitching to Derge, though I’m worried what I will find there. A few nights back a skinny, young, frenetic Chinese businessman came to the monastery. He wore mala beads around his neck and enthusiastically pushed cigarettes on everyone. I was the only one who accepted them. He explained to us that as a businessman — in this case a developer of hotels in Tibetan Sichuan — it was important to have a religion. After telling us about his service in the Chinese Special Forces and a trip to Ireland to engage in joint training with U.S. soldiers, he learned that I was going to Derge. “No, don’t go there,” he told me. “It is like a war zone. Go to a different place. Not Dege. It is not safe.”

I make it to Manigango, a crossroads town between Ganzi, Derge, and Shiqu. An older Tibetan nomad woman comes up to me in the pullout where I’m trying to hitch. She speaks only Tibetan, and every time I say “Derge” she shakes her head emphatically and indicates that I should follow her the other direction. She’s wearing pink Converse sneakers, an elaborately embroidered heavy robe with one arm out of its sleeve, and the most fantastic hat I’ve ever seen, a riot of colors and tassels and golden dragons. I reckon she’s in her forties. Her face is weathered and creased but still perfectly proportioned and beautiful. Eventually she impresses two schoolchildren to tell me in Chinese not to go to Derge. We all stand on the side of the road for fifteen minutes until they lose interest and wander away.

T5-LakeOutsideManigango

A Chinese construction crew eventually picks me up and we drive fast up a broad, smooth road into the mountains. By the lake called Yilhun Lhatso by the Tibetans and Xinluhai Lake by the Chinese we stop to take selfies. We drive onward, packed close together in the cab of a pickup truck. At some point we suddenly divert from the wide paved road onto a narrow dirt track. The track takes us up over the mountains where the snow is already thick and then back down, where the fancy road recommences. Soon a miles-long tunnel will connect the two roads and the scenic pass will be obsolete. Once that happens it won’t be any trouble at all to get to Derge.

T5-RoadToDege

The nice construction workers drop me off on the side of the road and tell me the town is only a few kilometers away. I walk past great gravel yards, a monstrous concrete batch plant with angry dogs, then through the outskirts of Derge, past auto shops and half-built highrises and storerooms filled with dry goods or lightbulbs or melons or bolts of fabric. The press of town closes around me. Derge is built in what we could call either a shallow canyon or a very steep valley. The buildings elbow each other at odd angles. The streets bend and narrow down. Police drive by with sirens blaring. A crew of stonelayers is in the middle of re-cobbling the sidewalks today. Chinese and Tibetans throng the center of town. Everyone stares at the foreigner. I see a blue-and-white sign that declares, “Foreigner-Approved Hotels: Hotel Shambala, Hotel Himalaya.” Both are right next to the sign and look prohibitively expensive.

Eventually I find an empty restaurant and get lunch: vegetables that I select from a refrigerator and give to the lady to boil in a spicy broth. Two young girls are loudly playing with a doll by the door. I haven’t eaten since tsampa at dawn. By now it’s four in the afternoon, and I’m ravenous when the food arrives. After eating I read in the Lonely Planet guide that there’s a tiny hotel with rooms for fifty kuai that accepts foreigners. The proprietress doesn’t recognize the street name, but she calls someone on her cell phone and eventually points me in the right direction. On my way out the door she comes up to me with a ten-kuai note and asks me if I might trade an American dollar for it. I’m in a bad mood though, so I say I don’t have any American kuai. On the street the hundred-and-six dollars in my breast pocket immediately seem evil, tainted by my lie.

The hotel turns out to be right on the main drag — I’d passed it coming into town. They immediately give me a room with two twin beds in it, and I spend half an hour with a twelve-year-old girl trying to input my passport details into a foreigner registration program that was built with Windows 95. I go back to my room and smoke cigarettes and read Joyce’s Dubliners in dim, reflected light.

When I go out for dinner I first head back to the shop where I got lunch and hand the lady my last one-dollar bill. Derge isn’t a warzone. It’s loud and filled with police, but people smile at you on the street. I find delicious fresh noodles and a half-liter of warm lager, and I write in my journal.

T6-WideShotOfParkhang

In the Derge Printing Press (parkhang in Tibetan) the afternoon sun spills through a lightwell and onto a balcony where an old layman and a young monk furiously print a text. They sit across from each other, each straddling the wood paddle that’s meticulously engraved with mirrored Tibetan characters. The old man’s seat is a few inches higher, and the woodblock slopes down to where the young monk sits. Both sit on haphazard cushions and rock back and forth in meditative exertion.

It goes like this. They have just finished printing ten copies front and back off of one woodblock. The monk sets the used woodblock on the stack of other used ones. The old man’s left hand grabs the handle of the next woodblock in the series and sets it between them. With his right hand he dips a cloth sponge into a basin of ink and wets down the fresh woodblock. The monk with his left hand grabs a sheet of paper from a large stack and both men deftly smooth and straighten it onto the block. The monk takes his roller in both hands and firmly rolls it up and down the paper. Then he sets the roller aside and takes the printed sheet and lays it across his left thigh. The layman carefully applies another coat of ink to the block. The monk grabs another sheet of paper and they repeat the process.

After ten sheets have been printed they flip the block over and begin printing the reverses of each sheet. Now when the monk finishes rolling out a sheet they both lift the completed page up to a drying rack. Then the monk snatches another sheet from his thigh and they register it to the block. After they have completed the ten pages they set the used woodblock aside and take up the next one. The process of printing ten copies front and back can’t take more than two minutes of silent, sweating work. Occasionally one tells a joke and they laugh. Another man pours them fresh butter tea from a big kettle and eventually takes the place of the monk. Your devoted correspondent watches them, entranced, for at least half an hour.

When I finally tear myself from the spectacle, I say thank you in Tibetan, guadrenche. They stop their work and call me back. Don’t I want to take some pictures? I do, actually, but I had become so reverent of their labors that I was too embarrassed to ask. I thank them again and take a video.

I spend most of the afternoon wandering the printing house. It looks and is laid out just like a Tibetan monastery. But aside from a prayer hall on the first floor the entire space is given over to the printing operation. Much of the building is taken up by a library of over 210,000 woodblocks. According to my guidebook, more than seventy percent of Tibet’s religious library is contained within the building, ready to be printed and posted anywhere in the world. I find it incredible: a library to generate libraries.

T5-PrintedTexts

In one of the wings there is a mandala-printing studio. These are made printed off woodblocks that measure up to about three feet by two feet. The men there work each on their own project, carefully spreading the ink, laying the paper down, and then pressing on the paper with what looks like a big loose ball of yak hair. I wander through this room, stooped from the low ceiling, admiring the works drying on racks. Meanwhile the men take a break to watch a music video on one of their iPhones.

I wander further through the press. One man is sorting through giant piles of printed papers, assembling each set in the right order. Another is setting out freshly printed editions to dry on banisters along the lightwell. A few older men wander the premises with brooms and stick-mounted dustpans, stirring up the motes that catch the beams of sunlight. A Chinese family rushes through the place, urgently trying to see all of the sights of Derge in a single afternoon. In a light-drenched little room facing the main courtyard a portly Tibetan in nomad’s robes sorts through a great pile of what I assume are order forms and shipping receipts. He’s halfway through filling a massive leger with cramped Tibetan script.

There’s a steep stairway leading to the roof of the press. From up there I take a lot of pictures of picturesque Derge, a sweet little town nestled between great peaks, swiftly undergoing a transformation into a small Chinese city complete with bland high rises and an army barracks.

T6-ViewFromRooftopVillageAndMtn

As I leave the printing complex I say some prayers for its wellbeing and continued existence. Then I snap some shots of the rows of woodblocks sitting ready on their shelves, even though there are signs everywhere saying not to.

T6-ViewofLibrary

I walk up above the old Tibetan quarter and sit in a field among yak pies and old soda cans to think about this place I have just been. It was not only incredibly beautiful, but it gave me hope as a book-lover. If this tradition can survive even in today’s China, then literature and stories and libraries and books can survive any blow. I think about my favorite libraries: Fort Bragg High School Library, where I first read “A Perfect Day For Bananafish”; Widener Library at Harvard, where Virginia used to work keeping the books properly shelved and ordered so students and scholars could find them; the National Public Library in Petersburg which card catalogs are not yet entirely digitized; my professor James’s apartment, crammed full of Armenica and Iranica and Russian vols. and even a first edition of Fahrenheit 451inscribed to his grandfather. I think of that book, of when Montag learns that there are people who have memorized books in order to save them from the bookburning “firemen,” and that these people have vowed to pass great literature down orally until that time when the world is ready again for books. Is there any more hopeful image for our day and age?

Fewer than seven percent of Americans have read a poem in the last year. We are too busy with our Youtube videos and Buzzfeed listicles and video games and mind-numbing jobs to sit down and read a poem. Maybe we’ve also fallen out of the habit. Forty-seven percent of Americans watched the Super Bowl this year: a five-hour event where adult men concuss each other for sport. Now we know that playing professional football often leads to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a disease in which brain tissue degenerates resulting in a condition quite like dementia. Sometimes it can seem that our culture as a whole suffers from CTE, filled as it is with all the symptoms: memory loss, aggression, confusion, and depression. It can be a hard time to be alive.

The Word is not dead, though. It will never die, not so long as those of us who care about it keep reading, keep writing, keep telling stories. The Derge Print House, cheerily turning out copies of ancient sutras and commentaries, is evidence of this. If hard times come we’ll bury the woodblocks again, and we’ll remember where they’re buried. We’ll look forward to that day when we bring them back into the temple, alive, verbose, triumphant.

T6-LastImage-CatTail

 

Travelogue Excerpt – Wachang to Litang

What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on October 27, 2015.

MuliCountyCoolLighting

Day 7: Wachang – ???

I have a terrible nightmare of skidding off the edge of a cliff. I am on a motorcycle with big panniers and a wide console for a stereo and all the other stuff certain bikers want for their rides. It seems clunky and overbuilt, unstable. I’m coming down one of these narrow Tibetan roads carved into the side of a mountain. The weather is overcast and stormy-dark, but it feels dry and dusty. As I come to the corner, the bike won’t turn. It won’t turn — it is racing towards the void. I throw the bike into a skid and put everything I have into staying on the clifftop, lean into the ground as hard as I can to increase friction. I am still skidding, as if time slowed down, towards the edge, towards the abyss.

I slowly wake up to find I am in fact in a tent in Wachang, standing on my knees, trying to tip the tent over onto its side. I crawl back into my warm sleeping bag and wait for the alarm to go off. Soon enough it does, and I get up and break down camp. By 7:02 AM I am standing where the cars, if they ever were going to, would come pick me up. At 8:30 the bus to Muli pulls out, and I try to get the driver to give me a ride to the crossroads below Muli Monastery, but I can’t explain it. He drives off without me. I ask someone standing in the street if I can use his cell phone to call Hannibal, but he takes a cigarette from me and walks away. I wait another hour, then two. At 10:30 I start walking on the road that leads down into the gorge. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

BookBookAbandoned

At the first stupa I pass I leave behind the book James gave me, that I read yesterday. I put out the prayer that somebody will take it and give it to a kid studying English. Maybe it will be read again. But I don’t feel it’s possible for me to carry it one more step. Without it, my bag feels immediately lighter, better. Maybe I can do this after all.

It takes me about two hours to climb down to the crossroads, cutting across people’s front pastures and frightening their piglets, choking on dust from Chinese SUVs barreling up to the monastery, and gauging the weight on my shoulders and hips. It feels okay. At the crossroads I head for what looks like a little restaurant, but a shopkeeper calls me off. There’s no restaurant — just a big gas station and a few disorganized five-and-dimes. I sit in the shopkeeper’s store, and he hands me two pieces of Wrigley’s Peppermint Gum. I ask him if there’s a bus to Dongla and he says no. I ask him if there’s a bus that goes in that direction, and he says no. I even ask him if he has cigarettes and he says no, so I go off to another crappy store to buy a pack. Later I realize I was asking if he had rice (fan), not cigarettes (yan). Of course he had cigarettes.

After sitting on a stool in the store for a while, I am joined by the police. They want gasoline and energy drinks. The kid with the good jump shot who I had played basketball with is riding along in plainclothes. He comes over to visit me, and I give him a stick of chewing gum. We chew in companionable silence for a minute. He asks me where I am going, and when I say Daocheng he gives me a thumbs up. Then he buys me an enormous pack of buckwheat granola bars and a bottle of water. “Good luck,” he says once the uniformed police officer is done harassing some tourists. They leave.

I keep sitting on the stool, next to the horrifically bored shopkeeper whose shop is in utter disarray. He has become tired of staring at me and now looks at the opposite hillside. The mid-day heat is causing the air to shimmer slightly. I think of the happy-seeming Tibetan families just up the hill, bringing in the corn harvest or trying to convince the ox to pull the plough. Often the whole family is out in the field, sheltering under the walnut tree, a few Tibetan ponies grazing on the cornstalks. Here in this crossroads town the flies buzz all afternoon, and garbage chokes the gutters. The shopkeeper leans back in his cushioned chair and avoids looking at me.

At this moment I know, as if I have already known for a long time, that I will not backtrack to a dusty Chinese city, will not take the bus back to Muli, will not fail to enter Tibet. It’s suddenly obvious that I will keep going until that point where the world forces me to turn back. This knowledge is purifying. A nagging question has been answered and it no longer weighs me down. Whereas before I had carried my failure with me, now I feel strongly that I will not give up. I will simply carry on, heading north and west, even if it means surviving on buckwheat granola bars for a while. I feel good in the decision — not excited but resolved.

I pack and hoist my bag, set the straps, bid adieu to the blasé shopkeeper, and start walking north. After a while a Tibetan in a pickup gives me a short hitch before he turns off to cross a bridge. Then a while later a Chinese trucker picks me up and carries me past nightfall. He and I develop a quiet friendship. At some point we stop and take a nap near a massive hydroelectric plant. We are woken by the driver of another truck yelling at us. It turns out that he’s part of a four-truck convoy who happened to be running ahead. We spend the next couple of hours with the windows rolled up, in a cloud of dust as we slowly pick our way down a rutted and potholed dirt track.

At some point the truckdriver gestures at a turnoff and asks me if I want to get out. I keep asking him which road leads to Daocheng and eventually he puts us back on the road up the river, following the three other trucks. At another point I see three closed mineshafts in the course of a few miles on the other side of the dry riverbed. I assume that there had been some aborted attempt at mining up here — the rivers are famously good for panning for gold. Then we come on a great dam that strangely lacks a hydroelectric plant at its base, and I realize that those weren’t mineshafts. They were access points to a vast water diversion that takes the water further downhill, where the energy is greater.

The entire run of the river is an ecological nightmare. In some places the river is sixty feet wide with churning whitewater. In others it is perhaps fifteen feet across and comparatively trickling. Reservoir after reservoir is newly full, with tree trunks half-underwater and the trees dying, half-brown. In one reservoir I see the wall of a house floating near the shore. Around each dead lake stands an eerie silence and a smell of rotting fish. There are signs prohibiting fishing, swimming, diving, and drinking the water. Everywhere the hills are striped with high-voltage electrical cables.

Sometime after sunset our convoy of trucks rolls into a small town on the hill above a dam. My truckdriver explains that we will eat dinner. We go into a small, cinderblock room with a single compact fluorescent lightbulb where a boy a few years younger than me prepares us dinner. He makes extra eggplant for me, delicious and spicy, and there is also very good pickled cabbage. The other truckers all ignore me at first, and then we get on good. They want to talk about the size of my nose, which is only a preamble to talking about the size of my penis. They measure between their palms penises that belong on stallions, and then they ask me how big mine is. I start to indicate a more realistic size, but they shake their heads until I indicate a heroic dimension, then they cheer. Later we inspect American money, and I give a dollar bill to the one who ends up paying for dinner.

ReallyCoolTruckDecorations

I get back in the truck, and we drive up the road another few hundred yards. Then it’s time to part ways. I shake my generous driver’s hand and head down the road. I’m right by a great dam, hundreds of feet high. I’ve learned the logic of Chinese dams by now, and sure enough I’m soon walking down a tunnel hewn from solid stone — no reinforcement — with only my headlamp for light. The eerie drips and echoes, and the great puddles I must skirt around remind me of my Grandpa Bob, once a devoted amateur spelunker in Western Pennsylvania. I personally don’t understand the allure of being underground, but there’s something impressive and otherworldly about those who do. Eventually I make it to the other end of the tunnel.

Here there is a yard for big machinery beside the road. The guard dogs hear my walking sticks and take up a tremendous howling. One manages to slip through the fence and starts coming at me. I warn him with my stick: any closer and you die. Or at least that’s the intention I’m trying to send his way. The dog backs off. I keep walking, occasionally turning back to check on my pursuer. He keeps a healthy distance for a hundred feet, and then I’m in another tunnel. He doesn’t follow. This tunnel has a more uneven floor, covered in puddles, and it seems to go on for longer. Eventually I get scared, looking at the watermarks on the ceiling, hearing the distant echoes of the dogs. I get a little bit spooked, so I sing the theme song toIndiana Jones. It is widely known that you cannot feel fear while adventuring and singing this song to yourself. After ten or fifteen minutes I emerge from the other side of the tunnel and find myself beside another enormous, dead lake.

I don’t want to sleep by this lake, so I commit myself to walking until I am beyond it. There is anyways something charming about night hiking. At least there are fewer cars to stir up dust. After a while a car comes up behind me and slows when it pulls up. The passenger says, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” I say yes, and soon he invites me to take a lift. The man is a programmer from Beijing out here on holiday, and he speaks fairly good English. We talk for a while and then reach his car. It turns out that the Tibetan boy driving him was a mechanic who had been summoned to help change a flat. They drop me off by some stupas on the edge of the dead lake.

I walk for another hour or maybe two, passing an orange tabby cat, a big bullfrog, and a cow. I end up pitching my tent on the side of the road where there’s a flat spot of sharp gravel. Water rushes loud in the gully below — a tributary that today feeds the lake — so this campsite qualifies as being away from the evil-seeming reservoir. I am happy as I pin the guy wires under heavy stones to notice a dry wind blowing from the west. Perhaps my tent will be dry when I pack it on the morrow. I am energized to write in my journal, noting the joy of the sound of this running water and the occasional but truly desperate lowing of a nearby cow before falling into a deep sleep.

 

Day 8: ??? – ???

I rise early, as I’m uncomfortable with the idea of sleeping on the side of the road during trafficbearing hours. While striking camp I look across the stream at a large Tibetan house with a pleasing puff of smoke coming out of the chimney. I walk down and take water at the stream, avoiding eye contact with a mean-looking bull. Perhaps this was the one making all of the racket last night? I add the iodine tablets and head off down the road, but before I’ve made thirty steps a young Tibetan man stops me and invites me in for tea. I accept and soon am sitting around a wood stove in a great room drinking butter tea. Three or four youngsters are all piled under some heavy blankets in front of Chinese cartoons, while the two older generations of Tibetans — two couples — sit around the morning stove watching the day’s soup bubble. The same butter tea plunger as at Muli Monastery is employed here, and the tea is quite good. They also give me a bowl of day-old rice and pour tea over it. It’s delicious and filling. Eventually, the man offers to take me to Daocheng on his motorbike for 500 kuai, but I decline. That’s all the money I have, about eighty bucks.

I leave and walk up the road. Another forty or fifty steps later a pickup truck comes up behind me. Not knowing how many other cars might come by today I stick out my thumb. They stop and take me on: four Chinese men telling jokes and laughing. I wonder if they will take me all the way to Daocheng, but soon they stop. The road in this section has slumped four or five feet down: the beginning of a landslide. The men pile out of the truck and start chatting with the operators of two backhoes that are starting to try to clear the mess. One hands a five-gallon bucket from the back of the truck up to a backhoe operator. I figure it must be hydraulic fluid.

I walk across the slide area. There are still pebbles occasionally rolling down from one hundred feet or so up the bank. I have to calculate whether it is safer to walk on the slumping side, which seems likely at any moment to slide the rest of the few hundred feet down into the lake, or to walk on the narrow section that is not slumping but might be the target of any falling debris. I walk quickly on the unslumped side and make it to the other side. There, it seems trucks and cars have been stopped for a day at least, waiting for the road to be fixed. Chinese people stand around a makeshift fire, bored. I look back at the slide zone and notice high above it, tilting off the cliff, two woodframe shacks. I wonder what the fatality rate for backhoe operators clearing roads in rural Tibet is, and then I continue on my way.

SlumpingPartofRoad

I walk down the road for a long time, not seeing any cars in either direction. There are herds of goats perched high up on hillsides and herds of yaks just barely off the road. I also encounter several pig families, piglets running in fear from me until they reach a certain distance from their mothers, at which point they press themselves against the side of the road till I have passed. A Tibetan girl is collecting special tree branches and tying them into great bundles. Perhaps they are for burning as incense. I pass through a Yi village and smile with an old woman who has many gold teeth and wears her people’s distinctive headdress.

Then I come upon a section of road that is stunningly beautiful: rocky crags leaning over the road, great spires reaching from the lake up towards the heavens, and a sheer cliff face that looks to my unstudied eye to be a spectacular piece of climbing. Hundreds of feet down there is a little creek that must over the eons have carved these spectacular formations. It runs swift for a ways and then slows into a sandy trickle as it meets the lake. Some garbage bobs against the shore.

DramaticSectionofRoad

A ways further on I catch a ride from an older Chinese fellow in a white jeep. Before riding in this vehicle I don’t know if I ever really understood the meaning of the term, “Bucket of Bolts.” I can report that this car really does sound like a mechanic’s toolchest on a trampoline. There are all manner of different clanks and clunks in the engine. The transmission lets out a wide range of different whines. And the suspension is so thoroughly shot that one regularly hears and then promptly feels the shocks bottoming out. Furthermore there is a well-developed exhaust leak contributing serious gasoline fumes to the cab, which linger even with the windows rolled all the way down, as we keep them for the entire journey.

Luckily the driver is a nice Chinese fellow, probably looks older than he is and he looks pretty old. We develop a strange sort of camaraderie, both trying not to hit our heads on the roof too hard. We have varying success. At a few points he takes a set of chuckholes a little bit too fast and the whole car leaps again and again. This gives me some paranoia about my bag falling out of the back. I keep turning around when I see a big bump coming, just to have the pleasure of watching my green canvas bag leap up in the air and momentarily into view. Just about the time I’ve convinced myself the bag won’t fall out, however, I start getting scared for my computer, which sits in the middle of the pack. Again I wallow in miserable paranoia for a bit, till I manage to attain a tired acceptance that whatever happens will happen, and there’s no good worrying.

We drive for hours and hours, passing even more dry streambeds and dead lakes. At one point my driver manages to run the undercarriage aground in a particularly deep rut. The two of us ineffectually try to extract the jeep until some competent Tibetan young guys driving a delivery truck come along. One of them takes charge of the situation, requisitioning a long pole from a disassembled log cabin sitting on the side of the road. The three Tibetans and I use this to lever the jeep out of the puddle on one side while the driver gets muddy placing rocks and boards under the raised tires. Finally the Tibetan leader gets in the jeep and drives it crazily out from its ditch. We all get back in our vehicles, and the old Tibetan woman who has been watching the undertaking while continually gesturing at the turnip she cradles and saying something to me in Tibetan continues on her way.

This hitch takes me so far up the river that we pass hydroelectric plants still under construction. The river here is strong-flowing and beautiful, sometimes taking up the entirety of the gorge, which leaves us thankful for the crude, unlit tunnels. I in particular am thankful not to be walking through them. But eventually I develop a slight headache from the fumes, and I’m not totally disappointed when we finally reach the trademark tents of the Chinese road crew and my driver visits with his buddies and sends me on my way.

Day8ViewofStream

The road here is nearly abandoned and totally beautiful. I walk for a long time, only encountering one truck coming the other way. These truckers wish me well on my journey and feed me all manner of delicious pastries along with giving me a Hi-Tiger. They draw me a map that doesn’t seem to be much use, and they take a picture with me. I sit on the side of the road and eat the food I cannot take with me. I realize I have not been afraid all day long.

Over the next few hours several cars pass me, and finally one agrees to take me. Three Chinese tourist men are going to Litang, and I ask them to take me. I cram my bag in the back seat with me (the trunk is full of wet bedding), and we go speeding off. This car has great suspension, gosh what good suspension, I keep thinking. We pass a view of a distant hillside spotted with deciduous trees all yellow and red. We also pass a strange section of forest that is blocked off by chain-link fence and cyclone wire. I wonder about it as we pass. But after perhaps twenty minutes the Chinese men tell me to get out of the car. The driver attempts to trade his cheap sunglasses for mine. I refuse. Before they drive away, I show them the map the truckers wrote for me. No good, they say, and they draw another one. This one’s equally in Chinese and so to me rather useless. They drive off, and I look at a beautiful field and consider camping in it. But no, I’ve only hiked a few hours today and really should press on.

After twenty minutes or so, I come upon a beautiful Tibetan couple taking an evening walk with their three-year-old son. I show them the map I have saved on my phone and ask about the way to Daocheng. They have to think a long time about how one could get from here to there — we don’t seem to be near any of the towns on the map — but then they agree that if I continued up this road I would eventually reach a town where I could turn left and get to Daocheng. More importantly, they ask if I’ve eaten. I take them up on the invitation, in part because I know that they have working telephones, and I really feel like I should make contact with my family and with Hannibal up in Xining who is eventually expecting me.

TibetanAngels

I walk with the husband back up the hill to the compound ringed with prison-esque fences. (Much later I find out it was some sort of mine.) At one point, frustrated at our lack of communication, he calls a young girl who speaks English and hands the phone to me. We have a desultory conversation — her English isn’t that great, my Chinese worse — and I hand the phone back to him. We make it to their modest cement-block house. The woman starts a wok filled with water to boiling atop a wood stove. Meanwhile I manage to get the husband to call Hannibal on his telephone. The first thing I say is, “Can you tell my mom I’m okay?” It’s a relief to hear my friend’s voice, to speak fluent English, to think about an end to my trip. Hannibal talks to the man in Chinese and determines that I’m actually on a road that leads to Litang — the stop I was intending on making after Daocheng. I’ve already crossed out of Muli County and am well off my map. We decide it would be easier and wiser if I just continued to Litang.

Afterwards the wife makes me a massive bowl of instant noodles — beef and sour vegetable flavor, though we leave the beef packet out — and she adds a bunch of dark-green lettuce and two fresh eggs to the pot. It’s delicious and filling. While I slurp great quantities of noodle, they draw me a crude map of where I’m going. Then the husband considers it, shakes his head, and asks for a fresh sheet of paper. Now he draws a beautiful, intricate map showing the course of the river and where the road departs from and rejoins it. I point at each named place on the map and transliterate it into a crude pinyin.

As dusk begins to settle over the deep valley I pack my bag back up. I give some stickers to the son, who immediately starts sticking them on nearby trees and doors and vehicles. Then I walk a ways further till I find a small field next to the river and pitch my tent there.

MapToLitang

Day 9: ??? – Litang

I wake in the middle of the night to the sound of a field mouse eating one of the buckwheat granola bars I had left outside the tent. I pull them back inside and return to deep sleep with dreams I don’t remember. I wake up to the sound of my alarm and look at my phone. It’s six-thirty in the morning. I go back to sleep and wake sometime later to find that my phone is dead, so I won’t be able to take any pictures today. I strike my very damp camp, leaving the nibbled granola bar for the mouse.

I walk up the road for a long time, alternately filled with the beauty of the place and depressed by the constant press of a young pine forest. I fantasize about a wide valley floor, no trees at all, ringed by dramatic peaks. What is this Tibet with no nomads?

Eventually I start up a tall hill, heavily switchbacked for motor vehicles. These have been the bane so far of my walk: a hiker can go pretty much straight up and down a mountain, but not without a path. Instead every kilometer of crowflight takes three kilometers of walking back and forth up and down gentle slopes. However this hillside shows evidence of once having had a much steeper road up to the ridge. I decide to take it.

I head up a gully towards the steep road cut. It’s more vertical than horizontal, and I’m thankful to be going up. Climbing feels good; descending hurts my knees. I reach the road cut, which is really more of a lumpy landslide than a track for cars. Soon I can feel all of the muscles in my legs and I press onward, invigorated by the burning. After twenty minutes, though, the road ends abruptly. I consider turning back, but it’s too demoralizing. Instead I hallucinate a goat track up into the pine-covered hillside and decide to press on.

There is no goat track. Also, the slope here is more of a cliff than a hillside. Somehow the pines cling to its side, and I do to. It’s awkward with my heavy pack catching branches and shifting my center of gravity back. But at least I’m going up, where I can grab knobby roots and flaking trunks and hardy shrubs for support. I make maybe one hundred yards of progress, till the slope levels out a little bit. The road, the real road, is nowhere in sight.

I cut through a wide patch of brambles. The sun is hot. There the road is. I clamber up onto it and throw my bag down. Made it. I drink some water and listen as a distant whine of a motorcycle winds its way up the valley, my head filled with fantasies of a vacant back seat. Instead it’s a caravan of three motorcycles, each carrying three Tibetans plus provisions. We all stop at the pass to look at prayer flags and share cigarettes.

The rest of the day is a long valley with terraced Tibetan villages every few miles overlooking the river. Some of them are abandoned and crumbling back into the mud from which they’re constructed. Others are choked with garbage and crude new stupas and lazy strays. Tall, heavily budding pot plants grow in courtyard gardens; spindly-weak ones choke the ditch beside the road, competing with other weeds. A single tractor passes me going the other way. The exhaust pipe angles up and out, pointing its carbon-black exhale at me

Day grows long. The valley folds itself back up into a gorge. I start leering at flat spots, though I know I should keep walking for a while longer. A motorcycle catches up to me and stops to chat. A Chinese man with a real smile and a horseshoe of hair around a shiny bald pate. He’s also traveling from Muli to Litang, and I’m to understand he plans to open up shop as a carpenter. Behind him on the bike he has a modest, well-built wood toolchest and three handsaws with blades angled at forty-five degrees. He’s trying to give me a ride, and I keep thanking him but indicating that there’s literally no room for me. We shake hands and he rides off.

Another hour of walking later a pickup truck comes roaring up behind me. It’s filled with four Tibetan men wearing threadbare, elegant suits and mala necklaces. I explain where I’m going and ask if they’ll give me a ride. The driver shrugs. One guy gets out and takes a leak. I throw my bag in the bed and climb in after it. We drive up the steep, rutted one-lane road at a high speed. Soon we pass the carpenter from Muli, and I wave at him. He smiles and waves back, buzzing slowly down the evening road on his loaded bike, looking for all the world like a Miyazaki character. Four bone-jarring hours later I’m chilled, my face is caked with road dust, my soul has been lifted by a smolder of sunset seen from a high pass, and I’m in Litang searching in the dark for my hostel. I find it, take a shower, and go to sleep without dinner. My period of lostness is over.

View from the hill above Litang Monastery.

View from the hill above Litang Monastery.

 

Travelogue Excerpt – Muli Monastery to Wachang

What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This was originally written on October 16 and sent out October 26.

NightfallOnDay7Maybe

Day 5: Muli Monastery – Wachang

I wake up to a loud voice: “Jasper, Jasper!” It takes me a little while to sort out where I am. The off-white sky crossed by two black stripes; the cocoon of impossibly perfect warmth. “Jasper!” I sit up and unzip the tent and then the condensation-damp fly. Outside Jasi and Tsien-lu are bundled up against the pre-dawn chill. “Do you want to have butter tea with my uncle?” I agree and wrench myself from the sleeping bag. We walk up the broad staircase to the main monastery building, listening to the early chirp of birds and the gravelly drone of monks chanting in the temple. Jasi tells me that the very tall building behind the main temple has been built to house a seven-story copper Buddha just being finished. The monks are busy working on the Buddha, consecrating it, and filling it with holy scriptures and relics. Part of Jasi’s reason for making pilgrimage this fall, beyond sharing his heritage with Tsien-lu, is to place a large piece of jade in the Buddha. The piece of jade was belonged to Jasi’s grandparents and was kept as a holy relic. These grandparents’ parents helped build the original Muli Monastery, but they also watched it be torn to the ground.

On the third floor of the monks’ quarters we find Jasi’s uncle’s apartment. It is dark. We sit on carpeted benches and drink butter tea and fresh yak cheese, which is remarkably and thankfully feta-like. We wait for the water to boil in a tiny rough clay teapot that the uncle puts directly on the electric heating ring built into his low table. Jasi and Tsien-lu struggle to explain why the uncle had become a monk. Finally they point at his phone: “Wine-cup bearer.” I say, “Oh, he’s an alcoholic,” and they nod. Cupbearer actually has a different meaning in the West, but that’s okay. He was an alcoholic, and the family paid for him to become a monk. Now he hasn’t touched the stuff in many years and instead carries out his ritual functions in a supportive community. It strikes me that as far as rehabs go, becoming a Tibetan monk is probably pretty effective.

The water boils; the green tea leaves all foam up and threatening to overtop the pot. The uncle deftly moves it away from the burner at the last moment. Then he takes out a device that looks like a very tall and narrow mortar and pestle or a tiny butter churn. An eighteen-inch wooden tube with a plunger of the same length. From a tub that sits on the floor he scoops a generous spoonful of butter and drops it into the device. Then, holding the device with his left hand, he pours the tea from the teapot. Now begins the exciting part: he deftly in-outs the plunger again and again, making an exciting noise and each time the liquid threatening to spurt out onto the wall. The uncle is a deft practitioner in the art of making butter tea, however, and after a few minutes of sucking and plunging, if you will, the tea is ready. He pours it through a sieve into another pot and then distributes hot butter tea to the three of us. The emulsion is perfect –– no pools of butter form on top to stick in your moustache. It’s delicious. Savory, rich, and a spreading warmth in your stomach. Soon it’s time for round two and then three. In between rounds we eat yak cheese and a flattish corn cake that given another thousand years of culinary evolution might become a fine tortilla.

After breakfast, Jasi and Tsien-lu leave me to my own devices. I walk a kora of the monastery, circumambulating it in a clockwise direction. Then I walk up to a hilltop adorned with prayer flags. I think to myself that it was from this hilltop that in 1924 Joseph Rock took the first photograph of Muli Monastery. If you will indulge a few sentences of poorly-researched historicizing, I will now tell you about Muli and Joseph Rock. Rock was an Austrian botanist and adventurer as well as correspondent for the National Geographic Society. He chose an adequately remote part of the globe to explore: Muli formed the outer reaches of Tibet and was accessible only through a perilous series of deep gorges. Marching a military force to Muli would be difficult — to administrate it from afar before the period of the internal combustion engine must have taken a reasonably strong government. The late Qing Dynasty was unable to hold Muli as a vassal: indeed much of Sichuan was under the control of various warlords, and Lhasa had never had control of the far-flung county. Instead, Joseph Rock found a lama king ruling a very modest kingdom from his seat at Muli Monastery. Rock ended up making friends with the minor potentate, and even today he’s a kind of folk hero in Muli County — the First Westerner. (When Marijn, Talita and I were eating yucky yak cheese dumplings in the new city also called Muli, a Chinese girl tried to recruit us to take a busride to “Joseph Rock’s house,” which I guess there’s an outside chance actually still exists.) (Most of my information here is coming from Michael Woodhead’s blog, josephrock.net, and any errors are my own fault.)

Up on the hillside I try, without having the original as a reference, to take a picture from the same vantage point. Unfortunately I totally fail. Nevertheless, I think it’s instructive to compare Rock’s shot from 1924, Michael Woodhead’s from 1994, and mine from 2015.

ThreeAgesOfMuli

Back at the tent, I eat some cookies for lunch and write for a while. Eventually Jasi comes by and tells me he has found out some things about my situation. For one, there is a bus from the crossroads below the monastery to a town called Dongla in Tibetan. From there I can take a bus to Daocheng. But, he suggests, I might follow him and Tsien-lu to the town of Wachang, just up the road. Maybe another, even better solution will present itself there. I write for another few hours and then take one last tour of the monastery.

Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are almost always spectacularly beautiful. This beauty comes not just from the architecture, though there is something very pleasing about their unfolding geometries, the fractal adornments around every opening and under every eave (eat your heart out Christopher Alexander), and the traditional barrier wall surrounding the sacred space and separating it from the profane. Even better, though, are the people actively using the space: the saffron-robed student monks and the old pilgrims wrapped in heavy nomadic robes, the elderly abbot and his attendant walking their twice-daily kora, even the Western and Chinese tourists turned momently inward by the space. (I’m not speaking here of the Chinese guys with fantastically phallic photographic equipment, standing at the very center of the courtyard, shouting for the monks to pose.) But I would argue that the very best, most soul-stirring thing about Tibetan monasteries is their siting. They almost to a one stand in outrageously beautiful locations: the south faces of hills looking out at beautiful snow-capped mountains; the center of great grasslands ringed by farming villages and, beyond, great peaks; or even at the base of jagged-toothed mountains, looking thousands of feet down at dramatic gorges.

This last is the site of Muli Monastery, a great upgrade on the city of Muli, which before it was elevated to be the county seat had been called Bowa. Before I leave the monastery, I take some pictures of the great tarps laid out in the courtyard before the main temple to facilitate the drying of barley and corn, the two staple foodstuffs of the community. In the background is holy Mount Mitzuga, in which the local god lives.

BarleyAndCornDryingAtMuliDaSi

An hour’s walk later I am in Wachang, formerly known as Muli township, now literally “Shingle Factory.” It’s a small town around a few bends in the hill from Muli Bompa. I can’t find Jasi and Tsien-lu, so I sit at the top of town, on the ledge in front of an old, traditional Tibetan building, and write a letter. I’m interrupted after maybe half-an-hour by my very generous friends from before. They’ve found on my behalf a group of teachers that is leaving in two days for Dongla, and these teachers have offered to take me with them in a spare seat. In two days time I am to wait at this exact spot at seven in the morning and in such a way I will be given a ride. It seems that God or gods or perhaps just the universe smiles on my journey. Jasi asks if I know where I’m sleeping, and when I say I don’t he secures permission from the local elementary school — across the street — for me to camp on their grounds. Jasi and Tsien-lu are in a rush, though, to find a hotel for themselves, and they ask me to meet them at the school in an hour.

I find a likely camping spot on the hill above the basketball court, but I’m too shy to set up my tent while kids are running up and down the steps that lead I think to the high school. Instead I sit on my bag and wait for the inevitable crowd to form. Soon it has; beautiful Chinese people about my own age, trying to communicate over our linguistic gulf. After a long while of pointing, smiling, and looking at my phrasebook, I understand. There’s food to be had up the hill. I join them and soon am in the middle of a great Tibetan rehearsal dinner. The groom’s father is running around, dispensing loose cigarettes and bottles of baijiu. A team of boys is bringing out dish after dish after dish. I try some of them, though I’m not sure everybody understands that not only do I not eat meat, I also don’t eat white meat, don’t eat fish, don’t eat clams, don’t eat chicken.

After having a good time for a while in the silence of the deaf mute, I am led to understand that a group of boys want to play basketball with me. I say yes — this is my rule, to always seize an opportunity, and it serves me well. I carry my bag down the hill and get ready to kick the kids off their court, but it turns out the Tibetan and Chinese boys want to play somewhere else, down the street. Then we have to do a dance where I explain that I’m waiting for my friend to come back. Eventually we use someone’s phone to call Jasi, and five minutes later he comes out of breath up the street. He apologizes for being late — they had found a hotel and ended up needing just a little nap. The apology is totally unnecessary. We go back to the school and set up the tent together. Jasi is smitten with the flimsy plastic and mesh cloth and aluminum poles that miraculously become a domicile in just a few minutes. He says he’s going to get one for himself. I should also mention that this delightful soul wrote his final paper in college on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and he likes talking to me about Alan Ginsberg and Bill Burroughs and the whole Beat Movement. I tell him that if he comes to California I’ll take him to City Lights in San Francisco, the Potala of the Beats. We finish setting up the tent and say goodbye. The tent is in a typically beautiful setting.CampsiteinWachang1

Then I race down the hill to play some basketball. I find everyone playing in the court behind the police station. There’s a wide range of ages and physical abilities. One more chunky fellow is in the business of aggressively fouling anybody about to take a shot. Another kid is lanky and quick, wearing an Allen Iverson jersey. He and I form the core of a team of four for a while, handily defeating all takers, even when I get cramps from the exertion and the altitude. There’s one good shooter on the other team, a handsome Chinese kid about my age with a killer midrange jumper. After a while they want to mix up the teams. I’m stuck with the worst players, against the best. This is the only time in my life I’ve been compared to Kobe Bryant. My guys are playing utterly stupid defense. They keep dropping coverage on the other team’s stars, expecting me to run out and contest shots on the perimeter, when my skills are undeniably in the key. (Especially here, where I have six inches on most of them.) Somehow, though, we gut out a victory. Afterwards I wash my face and arms by a spigot, and the best players linger. I gather them around and try to run a little sign-language basketball clinic. Takeaway: when you’re playing defense, you havealways to keep your arms above the waist. The handsome kid with the good jumper seems to absorb the lesson.

I return to my tent and lay down for a minute, ecstatic from the exertion. I write some very happy, optimistic drivel in my journal. Then I freshen up for the wedding, put on my nice gray knit sweater, and walk back up the hill. The feast has shifted into a different gear, with a handful of tables full-up and surrounded by people watching high-pace card games. Although part of me would rather sit at one of the empty tables and meditate on the meaning of life, I find one where I recognize a few of the faces and pull up a stool. For a while they play cards: a crazy game where the whole deck is dealt and then they take turns slapping pairs and straights and full houses on the table, screaming in Chinese. After ten hands it’s no clearer to me what makes a winning hand. Nevertheless each hand moves twenty kuai, more than three dollars, from each loser to the victor. Most of the teams are male-female pairs, with one running off to chat with friends or drink a toast and then returning to relieve the other to do same. One Chinese girl, though, playing alone, seems to be winning hand after hand.

Eventually another course comes out from the kitchen and the cards disappear. We peel boiled potatoes and eat them from our hands. Someone pours me a paper cup full of beef broth and I drink it, disgusted. They make fun of me for not eating meat, and we raise many toasts of thin Chinese beer, and then they try to get me to play the age-old Chinese game of choose-the-prettiest-girl. First I choose an older Tibetan lady, resplendent in all white. She’s overjoyed at my discernment, but the others are disappointed. The Tibetan woman is married and so they can’t try to set me up with her. I shake her husband’s hand and compliment him on his good fortune. Then the others want me to play again. I refuse several times. Though one Chinese girl is really lovely, my Western sentimentality — loveliness is something more internal than external, and moreover it’s cruel and ungentlemanly to insult any woman’s beauty — proves firm. The table is disappointed and gradually loses interest in the bearded foreigner.

Around this time a girl from the group of teachers comes up to me and tells me that they can’t give me a ride after all. One of their drivers has had an emergency and had to go home. There won’t be any room for me. I ask her about the bus to Dongla, but she says there isn’t one. She asks what I’ll do, and I say I don’t know, probably walk. At this, she tells me that I should at least wait a day, like I was planning on. They might be able to find another driver, and they’ll come tell me if they do.

The forced bonhomie of the wedding turns metallic in my mouth. The cheery sentiments I had written in my journal after the basketball game seem dumb or at least naive. This is what I had written: “New idea — Trust fall the world. Be perfectly defenseless, incapable, powerless — and let the world catch you. Remember the kindness of strangers. Be reminded of it.” It’s not that there isn’t truth there, but it was a kind of laziness for me to think I was incapable or powerless. I have legs, a tent, a few days worth of food. I might have to make my own way to Daocheng. The thought is scary. I drain my beer and walk down the hill to my tent.

 

Day 6: Wachang

I wake to the sound of rain on my tent fly, and I let myself fall back into a sweet half-sleep, like taking a bath. My sleeping bag is very warm, and I am content. Eventually I hear again the call, “Jasper, Jasper!” I unzip the tent and the fly to find once again Jasi and Tsien-lu. They are bundled up and look cold, but they wanted to see me one more time. We say our goodbyes, and I promise to write. Jasi tells me that if I have any problems I should call him. I think about the problem that arose last night but say nothing — they’ve already been so generous to me. They wave a final adieu and go to stand under their umbrella and wait for the bus back to Muli. I zip the tent back up and go back to sleep.

ViewFromTentWachang

I finally pull myself out of my sleeping bag when my bladder won’t let me wait a moment more. I pee behind some bushes and crawl back to my cocoon of warmth and personal, private space. I read the entirety of the one book I brought, The House of 20,000 Books by Sasha Abramsky. I had started it in the airport in Hong Kong and then lugged it all the way to Wachang. In this manner I spend the morning and early afternoon in a creaky old house in London with a singular expert on Marxist and European Jewish book collecting. This man, Chimen Abramsky, shows me the great gems of his collection, and he also invites me to the salon he and his wife hold in their dining room and kitchen. Books, well-loved books, line almost every wall. It’s like the dream of being home, or of being at a learned friend’s house, and it lifts my soul. Then I read a long paper by one H. Taubes about village fortification in northern China. A lot of it goes over my head, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

At some point a group of Tibetan and Chinese schoolgirls assembles on the terrace below my tent. They titter when I respond to their timid halloes, and eventually they muster the courage to ask me how to pronounce a word from their primer: “Competition.” Later they bring me a big handful of walnuts. As it turns out I have camped beneath the branches of a great walnut tree. Kids climb the tree with a big stick and whack its branches so that their friends can collect what falls. The walnuts are perfectly fresh and delicious. The girls who bring me walnuts as if I were a mendicant are horribly embarrassed when I try to take their photograph.

EmbarassedWalnutGirlsWachang

Eventually I run out of reading material. Lonely Planet China is so breezily researched and scattered in its approach to Chinese history that it annoys even me. The Kindle that Virginia kindly lent me for the trip is out of power. The stuff I wrote in my journal a week ago even seems obnoxious. So instead I spend the evening trying to write part of my novel and failing. The whole day has gone by and none of the teachers have come to update me on my ride situation. I eat a dinner of candied peanuts and shrink-wrapped tofu. Then I set my alarm early for the bus and fall asleep.

 

Travelogue Excerpt – Kunming to Muli Monastery

What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on October 12, 2015.KunmingHostelRooftop 

DAY ZERO: KUNMING

My twenty-fifth birthday. Buy apples, pomegranates, toilet paper, a bar of laundry soap, and a tiny towel. Wash clothes by hand on roof terrace of hostel. Shower and shampoo my hair. Attempt to get SIM card for phone at China Mobile, unsuccessfully.

I am terrified. My stomach on its own is clenching and occasionally its muscles buzz, like a phone. I do breathing exercises to calm down.

I’ve already done battle with China — its strange language, its rude smells and manners and streets, its essential foreignness — for a week now. It has left me exhausted and nervous for the deeper vulnerability that I know is yet to come.

At this nadir, filled with self-doubt, I receive my first friendblessing. Conrad the Swede is 18, keenly intelligent, and just arrived in Kunming to start a month-long apprenticeship with the American owner of the hostel and a nearby brewpub. He brings a vast plastic suitcase that immediately and permanently obstructs the walkway in our tiny dorm room. He speaks English at one volume only — loud, nearly shouting — and he wants to talk about philosophy. We immediately hit it off.

Over dinner at a Sichuanese place with great mushrooms and tangy-hot tofu, he asks me about my trip. Telling him about it, I grow excited again. I relax. It’s a good birthday dinner, as much as such a feast away from home and family can be satisfying. Afterwards, walking back to the hostel, the rising full moon sits red and giant, nestled in the modest skyline of Kunming.

I will leave. The adventure will happen. Yes.

 

JourneyMaps

DAY 1: KUNMING – PANZHIHUA – XICHANG

I wake up early and pack my half-dry t-shirts and socks. I tighten the straps on my bag. Conrad and I eat a breakfast of muesli, yogurt, fruit, and the last good coffee for a long time. I look over my maps: the Lonely Planet map of Sichuan, with a dotted line I’ve drawn between Muli and Daocheng, where no road shows; a series of grayscale terrain printouts from Google Maps. My research has not revealed a bus route or major highway between the two towns. The maps do not exactly inspire confidence.

I ask Conrad if he would like to come help me find a cab to take me to the Northwest Bus Station. Of course he would. I get that blush of relief, like my whole body unclenches. This feeling of relief surprises me. I don’t know why I still so much need my hand held.

We find a cab by the Green Lake Hotel, a concrete highrise with vast plateglass windows and rooms starting at $300USD a night. The driver seems to understand the sentence I earlier asked the hotel attendant to write out for me: Please take me to the Northwest Bus Station. I shake Conrad’s hand, he says a bon voyage, and I embark.

Thirty minutes later I’ve been deposited at the East Bus Station. By the time I realize this, though, my cabbie is long gone. My doom has not jammed.

I sweat and despair for a few minutes. People screaming at me, “Hello, hello!” Nowhere clean to sit. I almost despair. There’s nothing to do, though, except solve the problem. I dredge my memory to try to figure out how to say “Northwest.” Because of certain very literal translations I’ve run into, I suspect that West might come before North in Chinese: Westnorth. I know that North is bei, because Beijing means “Northern Capital.” And I have a hunch that Xian, another ancient capital, might have West in its name.

I convene a conference of bike taxi drivers and do a frantic dance with them, jabbing at my precious Chinese sentence and saying “Xi-bei, xi-bei,” over and over again. After conferring amongst themselves, the young cabbies who hold motorcycle helmets only as symbols of their trade, never wearing them, join me in my chant. “Xi-bei-buo, xi-bei-buo,” they say, nodding. We agree on a price, bungee my bag to a bike, and speed off.

BusesOfChina

I have no further trouble buying my ticket, and soon I’m in the dusty departures hall, looking out at a lot filled with the usual menagerie of buses. Chinese buses come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and levels of cleanliness. Nevertheless, when thirty of them crowd a lot, it can be hard to tell one from the next. I realize I will have to ask for help again. (In fact, constantly asking for help is the nature of successful travel in China. I just don’t know it yet.) I take out my ticket and approach a nice-looking girl, but at the last moment her boyfriend swoops her into conversation. Who else looks likely to help this deaf and dumb foreigner? There’s a quiet-looking boy. I steel myself and approach him.

He looks at my ticket and smiles. He’s also going to Panzhihua. “Let’s go,” he says in English. After boarding the bus we discover that our assigned seats are right next to each other. We share a cigarette, exchange names, and then Davey John and I are friends.

Dawei Zhong, as it turns out, works at the hydroelectric power plant in Panzhihua which, he proudly informs me via the translate feature on his phone, is “The Biggest of the Eighty.” I wonder what this number means, though I’ll soon find out firsthand that the Yangtze and its tributaries are dammed again and again and again. Davey is from Nanking, and his brother studies at SUNY Old Westbury. His English improves the whole ride to Panzhihua.

PanzhihuaBuddy

At the border between Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces, the police board the bus. They demand our ID’s and spend a long time handling and photographing my passport. At some point a more senior policeman boards the bus, equipped with both a sidearm and an AR-15 on a shoulder strap. He takes the backpack of a twelve-year-old boy and intimately examines it, disgorging every pocket, palpating each strap and inch of canvas. Over ten minutes his face shifts from annoyed to furious and sweating profusely. Eventually, having found nothing, he has to shove the schoolbooks and socks and snacks back in the bag. He hands it to the boy, grimacing and still beadily examining him. Then he walks off the bus. As we pull out of the police border station we pass the “Illegal Examination Room.”

We pass fields of corn and wheat and hay and quinoa. A goatherd under a parasol. Endless haystacks and dozens of brand-new, plastic hoop houses. We watch Japanese girls drive recklessly in Drift Special: Beauty Battle. We go through tunnels that last five minutes. We eventually arrive.

Panzhihua

Panzhihua is an industrial town built on the slopes of a gorge. Rock cliffs race hundreds of feet up above the road. The swift, broad Yangtze subdivides town, crossed by a half-dozen bridges. It is a hot four o’clock when we arrive.

Davey has offered to help me find a hotel in town, but I tell him I need to buy my bus ticket to Muli first. With his help we discover that there are no buses from Panzhihua to Muli. After a long discussion with a husky-voiced, chain-smoking fellow who’s hanging out in the ticketing hall, we determine that the only official way to get to Muli is to take a bus from Xichang, the next city over. I buy a ticket for the five-thirty bus to Xichang, and Davey walks me all the way to the ticket-taker’s booth. We shake hands and promise to stay in touch.

On the bus to Xichang I have a long conversation with a policeman going home to spend his day off with his wife and one-year-old son. Using various dictionaries, we talk about basketball, hotpot, and California. He tells me that he is not Han Chinese but instead Yi. He speaks some of his native language for me, and it’s beautiful, though I don’t think I can describe how it sounds.

As we approach Xichang I psych myself up to ask him for a hotel recommendation. But then, just as we pull through the outskirts of town, he says goodbye, the bus stops, and he gets off. We continue on without him, and my terror returns. It is dark, and I’ve been traveling for twelve hours, and I’m hungry. I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping.

We pull into the bus station, and as soon as I get off a woman comes up to me and offers me a room for 60 kuai. I follow her up the street and take the room sight unseen. It turns out to be fine, and they have zero interest in checking my passport. I lay down for a while and then go eat an enormous feast of spicy eggplant and garlicky cabbage. I like Xichang.

DinnerInXicheng

DAY 2: XICHANG – MULI

I wake to a great windstorm and watch as dawn reddens the surrounding hills. Lightning flashes to the south, but there is no thunder. The street below is abandoned but for the occasional motorbike speeding by. I pack my bags in the soft light. Downstairs, I have to wake up the boy sleeping on the lobby couch so that he can take the bike lock off the grease-smeared architectural glass doors to let me out. On the street, I almost lose my hat. A few dumpling shops are open, early risers sitting in the back, where the winds are stiller.

At the bus station the ticketseller refuses to give me a ticket to Muli. She thinks for a second and then writes down a sentence on a scrap of paper, puts it through the slot, and starts shout-talking with the next customer. I take the scrap of paper, confused for a moment, and then head out to the street. There I find a cabbie, show him the piece of paper, say, “Muli,” and he nods. We drive to another bus station.

I buy the last ticket for the 7:40AM bus and go queue for it. The bus ticket claims that the journey will take seven hours. The policeman last night said that it would take ten. I end up spending eleven hours on the bus, my butt falling asleep, my legs growing stiff, my bladder aching for hours at a time. I invent a TV show called, “So You Think You Can Potty Dance.” I start a novel with the line, “It is a fact universally acknowledged that when you’re holding your pee you can’t fart.” Just when I think I might wet myself, we stop at a clifftop toilet with an odor entirely its own. It’s the nicest place I’ve ever been.

Somehow my assigned seat puts me right next to the two other foreigners going to Muli this fall. They are Talita, a Brazilian lady living in Shanghai, and Marijn, a Dutchman promoting trade in Chongqing. They are spending a few days of vacation in one of the more remote corners of Tibet, kind of on accident. Nobody seems to mention the great difficulty of reaching Muli.

Once you have fought through about seven hours of muddy, bumpy busride, you enter Muli County. There are countless prayer flags at the pass, and a dozen great piles of Mani Stones. Also there are many signs and banners, all only in Chinese. There is no settlement of Tibetans here nor monastery. Instead just great piles of carved rocks, none weathered, all maybe three years old.

ManiStonesAndCellPhone

The bus jerks down skinny lips of dirt road, often terribly close to the thousand-foot plunge to the base of the gorge. When a car comes the other way both parties have to stop and then creep around each other. It is beautiful and nearly impassable terrain. How anyone lived here before the ubiquitous Chinese road crews took up residence is anyone’s guess.

Across the gorge are a series of Buddhist and Communist shrines. First a hillside portrait of Avalokiteshvara that must be two hundred feet from bottom to top. Around another bend, hundreds of twenty-foot tall flagpoles with long, long flags in an array that forms the Buddhist swastika. Next, on the opposing hillside stand the ubiquitous Chinese characters — white on a red field — saying, “Long Live The Communist Party Of China.” These are festooned in prayer flags. A few minutes later we see a giant starburst composed of multi-colored strands of fabric, and next to it reclines an enormous hillside portrait of Chairman Mao.

Below us, the valley floor is changed. No longer is there a ribbon of rushing water carving ever deeper its channel through the mountains. It is replaced with a large, dull lake. The color is overcooked pea soup. It is opaque. On the banks, a few old Chinese men tend fishing lines. Two cigar boats speed across it. The drama of the gorge is gone, slain by a dam.

 

Arriving in Muli I say goodbye to Marijn and Talita. I walk up to the top of town trying to get a view, but tall concrete walls block all the streets. As high up as I can get, but still with no vista, I set my bag down and have a cigarette. Trash blows in the evening breeze. Beyond a wrought iron fence there is a small graveyard. Stray dogs wander around, giving me side-eye. A Tibetan lady in a ratty coat comes up the hill, carrying two pails of slop on a milkmaid’s yoke. She stops next to me and sets down the pails. We smile at each other — she catches her breath — I smoke. Then she picks up her load and continues up the hill.

Back on the main street I’m having no luck finding a hotel. They seem to be all booked up, and I remember someone telling me that right now was Golden Week — a national week of vacation for students and government workers. Finally I break down and ask for help. A crowd forms as I gesture at my phrasebook, and I choose a young boy who seems to speak English to be my guide. We go to hotel after hotel, each time turned away because there’s no room or they don’t take foreigners. Meantime my guide turns out to be able to say only one word, “Restroom.” He repeats this like a mantra, gesturing at me, “Restroom, restroom, restroom!” At one hotel he tries to book a room with his ID card that he’ll then let me stay at. I try to tell him this is a bad idea — we could both get in trouble. What I actually say is, “Don’t want, don’t want.”

Back on the street it’s dark and crowded. A police SUV is making its way towards us, red and blue lights spinning manically. The boy gestures at me manically, “Arrest you! Arrest you!” I have a moment of fear and laugh nervously at the absurdity of the situation. The cops roll by us though, and there is no problem. “Restroom,” he says and leads me back down the hill.

Finally we find the one hotel in town that takes foreigners. Marijn and Talita are there trying to check in. My guide waves goodbye and leaves, surely not having expected to spend so much time helping me. The hotel has only the most expensive rooms available. For about $28USD I get a suite with queen bed, several couches, and a well-stocked mini-bar. I lay fully clothed on the bed for a while.

After some time, Marijn knocks on the door. “Jasper, do you want to come to dinner with us?” I immediately agree and hurry out of the room. We eat desultory Tibetan food — we can’t finish the pungent, greasy yak cheese dumplings — and pose for pictures with everybody in the restaurant. We make plans to have breakfast the next morning, and then we go off to our beds.

Just as I’m finishing my journal entry and about to go to sleep, a forceful knock comes at the door. I pull on some clothes and go answer it. Assembled in the hallway are the entirety of the hotel’s night staff, a uniformed police officer, and Talita. She, bless her heart, translates for me. The policeman wants to take some photos of my passport, and he also wants to know where I plan on going. I tell him Daocheng is my destination, and he says I cannot go. The rains have made the roads terrible, and it’s too dangerous. Don’t go.

I shut the door and laugh. In some ways it’s a relief to have to go back to Chinese cities, warm hostels, plentiful Westerners. I gave it my best shot, but the adventure was doomed. I’m under orders from the police not to go. I sleep.

DAY 3: OUT OF MULI

I rise early and have delicious vegetable dumplings with Marijn. Talita is feeling under the weather, unfortunately, and is getting a few more hours of sleep. Over breakfast I tell Marijn about last night’s visit from the police. “So I guess I’ll be taking the bus back to Xichang with you guys,” I say. He gives me a long look. “You’re not going to just give up because of what the police say, are you?” I laugh and say, “No, I guess I’m not.” Though before he said that I certainly was planning to do so.

I buy provisions — spicy candied peanuts, barbecued tofu shrinkwrapped in plastic, two tubes of Oreos, and six dumplings from the shop we breakfasted at — and pack my bags. Marijn hires a van to take him and Talita on a sightseeing tour outside of Muli Town, and he offers to give me a lift in the direction I’m going. We drive up a sloppy mud road, past endless gangs building footings and retaining walls for the new road to Muli. Their countless backhoes and water diversions have left the existing road a royal mess. Partway up we stop to pee next to a sloping slab of rock that runs a few hundred feet above the road. Tibetans have carved prayers and graven images into the stone. Another half-hour on, the driver points out the road to Daocheng and we take a few pictures and then part ways.

MeWithMarijnAndTalita

Finally, finally I begin walking. It feels great. Then a few hours later, it feels crappy. I start walking near a ridgeline and spend the whole afternoon and into evening descending on a never-ending series of switchbacks and contour lines. What takes me seven hours of walking could have been accomplished in an effortless hour on a bike. My knees ache. Endless dump trucks, backhoes, and SUVs jammed with Chinese tourists pass me, and I choke on their dust.

At some point I stop for lunch and take stock. The dumplings, it turns out, are all filled with yak cheese. I manage to choke one down. I also figure out I’m not even following the road Google Maps thought I should take. I start to think I might be going towards Muli Monastery (Muli da si in Chinese). Later I muster the courage to stop a car and ask them if this road leads to the monastery. Indeed it does. My printed-out map becomes roughly useless.

Luckily, over dumplings that morning Marijn had asked the proprietor if he had a map of Muli County. He produced a Chinese tourism guide showing the spots of touristic interest. At the front of the guide was a little map. I didn’t see it as being useful, but Marijn encouraged me to snap a picture of it with my cell phone. It ends up being the map I use for the next week, until I’ve long since, unwittingly, left it.

That night I pitch my tent just before pure darkness falls. I find a side road up a creek and pitch my tent by a pile of old coals and garbage. I eat another stinky yak cheese dumpling and some peanuts for dinner. The stream is loud all night long, and I hallucinate in its rush the sounds of motorbikes and dump trucks coming to crush me. I have bad dreams, and even in the morning light the stream sounds angry and upset and maybe even evil.

Hi-Tiger

DAY 4: TO MULI MONASTERY

I sleep late and tarry in striking camp. It’s nine thirty in the morning by the time I start walking down the road, my legs tender and stiff. I chew on the words I’ve worked out in my head to hitch my first ride: Ching dai wo. Please take me. I haven’t walked more than a hundred yards, though, when a beat-up jeep skids to a stop and waves at me to get in.

Inside are two rowdy Tibetan delivery boys coming back from a run into Muli. They ply me with cigarettes and the Chinese Redbull homage called Hi-Tiger. I love the different entendres in the name of this drink, and I actually think it tastes pretty good. We bounce down the road, blasting music. Their mix-tape is awesome. The version of “Mad World” from Donnie Darko, with the great lyric, “The dreams in which I’m dying / Are the best I’ve ever had.” Then some Shania Twain. Then the theme from Lord of the Rings but with a Chinese lady singing. It’s awesome but unfortunately over too soon. They leave me in front of a billiards hall at a muddy crossroads.

A crowd stares at me, like I’m a streaker at a football game. One man comes towards me, saying something over and over again and gesturing at the ground. I look around but don’t see anything, so I leave town quickly. It turns out the man was trying to tell me that the remaining three yak cheese dumplings had burst free from their thin plastic bag which I had strapped to the outside of my backpack. They had tumbled to the mud, never to be eaten by a human. And I was … relieved.

I walk a few hours up the road, passing a man skinning the bark off fallen pine trees with an axe. The houses in Muli County are often log cabin constructions of varying quality. The worst have great chinks in the walls while the nicest are covered over in a rough stucco. I also pass an old goatherd puffing away on a pipe that smelled suspiciously of marijuana. A few turns up the road and I find its source. Mixed in on a terrace of cornstalks are a dozen tall pot plants, heavily budding but unharvested. I decide I’m tired of hauling my dratted heavy bag with these incredibly sore legs, so I find a shady spot on the side of the road to relax and wait for a ride.

After a bit I see a black SUV zipping up the road towards me, and I hurriedly pack my stuff and go wave it down. The two Chinese men in it just wave as they pass me in a cloud of dust. A while later the bus to Muli Monastery comes and I get on it.

When the bus stops for lunch, I just stand around awkwardly smoking a cigarette. Eventually a Chinese girl comes up to me and asks if I want to have lunch with her. My policy on this trip is to say yes, whenever possible, so I go in to the little truckstop eatery and eat with Tsien lu and her Tibetan boyfriend, Jasi. She’s a terrorism student in Xichang while he works in administration in the county seat, Muli. We have a nice conversation about travel in Tibet, and they reveal that they too are going to Muli da si. Jasi’s uncle is a monk there.

When we finally get to the bottom of the monastery road, hours later, we three walk up it together. Jasi tells me that the ravine we’re coming up on is called “Buddha’s Gift,” a spring of fast-flowing, pure mountain water. There is a low-slung temple where the road passes the torrent of water. In front of it, Jasi burns an offering of juniper leaves. Their smoke is sweet and oily. We march around the smoky little fire three times, counter-clockwise, as Jasi and a monk chant. Then, having paid obeisance to the Buddha, we walk up the stream and clean our faces in its water. I drink a little, and it tastes pure.

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Now, Jasi tells Tsien lu and me, we are ready to see the face of the Buddha. As we walk up the road to the monastery, Jasi notices a patch of rainbow floating in the eastern sky. This, he tells me, means the Buddha is very happy to receive me. The rainbow, more a spot really, stays a long time looking down on us.

At the monastery, Jasi asks one of the monks where I can camp. Apparently I can camp anywhere in the monastery grounds. I choose a spot by the first building to be rebuilt after the whole complex was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. It is somewhat private, and it has and incredible view of the valley below. Before I go to sleep I look a long time at the stars, visiting Cassiopeia, Orion, Libra, Scorpio, the Big Dipper. The Milky Way seems a vast field, and the hills softly glow in the starlight. I sleep well and dream not at all.

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Travelogue Excerpt – San Francisco to Hong Kong

What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This was originally sent out on September 28, 2015.

 

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I. THE DAY OF DEPARTURE

My adventure officially started the morning of September 22nd, a Tuesday. Tuesdays are exceptional days, alone in the whole week for not having an important symbolic position. They are neither beginning nor end, not a mid-point, not penultimate. Holidays tend to avoid them. Nobody’s given Tuesday a cute name like “Hump Day,” nor has Rebecca Black mentioned them in a song. About the only special thing we do on Tuesdays is vote, and I suspect this is due precisely to Tuesday’s lack of prior commitment or symbolism.

I used to loathe Tuesdays for many of these reasons. The end of the weeks was still a long ways off, and it was my busiest day, including an hour-long violin lesson that I secretly dreaded because I never practiced enough. Additionally, I was often up past midnight with homework that night, and the mechanics of the week meant it would be a long time before I caught back up on sleep. So instead I built up a private cult of hatred for the day, dreading its approach and cheering its passage. I’d try to explain this to people, but they mainly treated me the way they normally treated me, as if I were a little nuts.

One day my junior year of high school I was standing in my corner of the school quad, hands in the pockets of the women’s pants I’d taken to wearing, when my eyes fell on something on the ground. It was a small button, perhaps an inch across, like candidates give out before an election. On the front, in black capitals against a white field, it said “TUESDAY”.

In that moment and for reasons I don’t precisely understand, my feelings about Tuesday switched polarity. It was immediate and permanent: Tuesday was my favorite day. I don’t know if other people even have favorite days — the concept seems arbitrary and unnecessary, like a favorite color — but I clipped that pin onto my jacket and told everyone who asked that it was my favorite day. My violin teacher, Via, was in particular confused, especially by the part where I explained that it had formerly been my least favorite day. She didn’t quite understand the dread that preceded the joy of my actual violin lessons.

One day I noticed the pin wasn’t on any of my jackets — it had at some point left, the way of things — but Tuesday has remained my special day ever since. For this perhaps longwinded reason I found it auspicious that my flight to Hong Kong left on a Tuesday. Compounding this numerological good tiding, we moved out of our house the Tuesday prior, and I turn twenty-five the Tuesday next. It was a good day for an official start.

II. THE FLIGHT

Having found my seat and left solid ground, I realized I was not ready for the trip, had no idea what I was doing, and was terrified. This is to say I had the reasonable reaction to beginning a long trip with only vague plans in a country where I don’t speak the language.

Airplanes and -ports form a strange country of their own, a true interspace that nevertheless has its own customs, visual language, and population. The vast departures halls, the crammed and sterile fuselages, the baggage claims — though scattered in cities and overhead, unmarked flight paths across the world — they have much more in common with each other than with any other nation or territory. In this unprecedented last century they have come to monopolize the beginnings and ends of our journeys. This is at least partly a good thing; the time spent in this 197thcountry gives us space to psychically let go of where we’ve been and somewhat brace ourselves for the shock of eight or twelve or twenty hours later walking out into a completely new and changed world. Sometimes far-off friends and I have engaged in the fantasy of teleportation, of instantaneous travel. It’s a sweet idea when you really miss someone, but I say even a half-day in airportlandia isn’t enough. The natural pace of human travel is walking or perhaps riding, and anything more is a shock to the psyche.

It was a strange consolation then that my plane’s flight path carried it just off the shore of California. It was a clear day on the North Coast, and from my blessed window seat I could see my old house, my old town, the places where for so much of my life my soul has resided. Except I was looking at it from 20,000 feet, with the Sierras in the background. The Postal Service sing, in one of my favorite lines, that “everything looks perfect from far away.” But in this case it didn’t look like much of anything at all. Just a few smudges of river and a crinkly coastline. And then, five minutes later, it was gone, and there was only ocean, and clouds, and the roar of the jet engines.

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