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Writing and Creativity
Saturday, December 4, 2012
Chilly arms. I swim for warmth in the bed. Sheets a little rough from being clean.
We all used to sleep in this space, the Boys’ Cabin, a hundred yards through the Adirondack woods from the main house. A tent made of rough boards, really—roof, half-walls all around with rafters and studs showing, and the rest is screens to keep the mosquitoes from draining my blood. They’re buzzing as the sun comes up, smelling me, hoping to get a drink before the heat of the day makes them grumpy. I smell, too. Pine sap and mildewed blankets. The air infused with forest and the little pillow of cedar needles my mother made. I’m done with Teddy Bears.
My brothers have rooms now, because they ‘deserve privacy,’ whatever that is. Brand new rooms, additions off one end of the cabin, with doors and windows and cubbies for special things. But they still have to walk by my bed to pee off the porch.
The scratch of a crow’s wings on the air. A woodpecker hammers out of sight. And there’s the song that vibrates my bones: the loon calling. I throw off the blankets and run barefoot to the screen door. He’s coasting on water flat as glass. His echo comes back off the hills across the lake. Then he dives, teaching me that perfection is fragile.
VACUUM, TIDES AND CAKE
Saturday, October 5, 2013
The drive behind most every author who picks up a pen is the desire—some say the compulsion—to communicate, the greatest of human skills. While the origin of this force is the subject of debate, everyone who has tried to write a polished piece testifies to the baffling difficulty of the task. I call it “Milking the Sky;” there is nothing there and hands won’t work, in any case. Still, a source of nourishment must be brought into being.
The beginner has the right to feel forces are arrayed against her. In addition to the complexities of the craft and navigating the current tenor of thought in the market, she faces the Force of the Vacuum: no one knows that she has the ache to write; no one cares—except a spouse or mother, who love the idiosyncrasy as part of the person; no one congratulates her; the path of acquisition of these skills is elusive; the good fortune of “hitting the right time” is unknowable; and examples of excellent writing not finding a public voice abound. It is enough to make anyone retire before reaching any goal.
When work, voice and timing do yield publication, the vacuum subsides in reverse proportion to success. In particular, if one’s work receives little due, the vacuum can press forward in a more toxic form—“I’m still unknown, undercompensated, and unappreciated.” This sucks away the passion for launching another project, even when the published work or the unwritten one deserve a place at the writers’ banquet. Untold numbers of writers find themselves beached after mild success.
Which image brings us to the Force of Tides. In place of the vacuum, the established author’s next projects must ride the ebb and flow of conditions beyond his control: the depth and quality of inspiration; the excellence of the work; the expectations of readers for a repeat or a risk; the timing of other works that may compare and steal thunder; the economy; technological changes (“the Talkies” crushed the careers of some silent film stars, because viewers didn’t like the sound of their voice); the financial condition of the publishing house; the politics of editorial staff and owners.
In the face of each of these highs and lows, the established writer must find inspiration to work now that the original desire to communicate may feel largely hijacked by less meaningful players. Most writers suffer some defeats. Though the Force of the Vacuum has been vanquished, the agony of tides continues. The best and most confident continue to write. Some turn to selling real estate.
At last, a few fortunate writers succeed and remember to write from passion, giving up caring about the Force of Tides. Their work may or may not draw readers, but they have vanquished the forces that have killed most others. At this time, some write their best work.
And you thought writing was a piece of cake.
Thursday, July 11, 2013
Novels share qualities of performance art and still photography. The performance aspect is the language and story sliding into the reader’s eyes and mind. The best work flows without interruption, directly becoming image, emotion and experience. And when read aloud, it sounds good to both the ear and the heart.
Like photography, writing stays forever linked to a page to be scrutinized by readers, writers and reviewers. Each word choice, each sentence, plot point and line of dialogue sits in the form the writer produced it . . . which is to say, one word and sentence at a time.
So, though much of the world’s great art leaps—or seems to leap—into being spontaneously, it is the rare novel that is not the work of many years labor. At its best, a book is a long string of static symbols on a page that magically becomes a vivid presentation of life.
The journey of my novel The Trouble with Wisdom confirms this. Born in the mind almost of-a-piece in April 2001, years of writing and research followed. Some of that research was geographical, cultural and literary. The more important work occurred internally, learning to feel and grasp the wild ride Zhampa DiOrio and his fellow travelers make (internally and externally) as they travel through an unraveled world.
A novel’s highest use comes from publication and getting there is often a long journey. The Trouble with Wisdom’s path to publication has involved many drafts and countless rejections by agents and publishers. In 2009, it entered the fray, self-published as a Hand to Hand experiment, which you can read about elsewhere on this site. Two years ago an editor helped raise the story from its shallow water grave, instilled this author in the craft and persisted with him until an integrated narrative emerged.
That manuscript found an agent in March 2013 and, as of this writing, it is being read by editors in seven of the great New York publishing houses. Though the pleasure of writing is getting the story down, married to craft, every writer longs to get the book into the hands of editors. It is the greatest opportunity, the bar for which she strives. And as of this writing, I count myself blessed to be in this place.
But . . . simply arriving in New York is no guarantee of success. Many stories do not meet the whims and constructs of the day’s market. I will keep you updated on developments, as I now turn my heart and pen to another narrative. If you care to read The Trouble with Wisdom in its current form, I will be delighted to send it to you and to receive your feedback.
Update: Though the story was complimented by some of those publishers, it still has not found a home. (The agent choose not spend the time to find it home with a smaller company.) The self-published copies did travel ‘hand-to-hand’ and I heard from readers on four continents. One copy found its way into the library of a spiritual community in India (Auroville) and readers there brought it to the attention of the head librarian, who was taken with it enough spend six months translating it into German. As of this posting, it has not yet been marketed to German agencies. That this year’s work. (2018)
And so the performance art continues, having to climb into bed with the business end of publishing. (See the article on Art and Business.)
ART VS. BUSINESS
August 12, 2009
With its penchant for viewing all activity through a monetary (read: profit) lens, American capitalist culture treats artists as menial workers—like miners, who dig for the important resource, which others sell to make fortunes without personal bodily risk. In fact, the experience of creating something (from nothing) is often described by those so engaged in terms of digging deep into unpleasant (inner) territory and extracting raw material that needs still much work to become valuable. It seems artists accomplish all the labor, and any others in the business are not much more than marketers and critics. This is close to a parasitic relationship. It is particularly painful, when one realizes that the artist is the lowest paid in the chain of wealth for her own product. Just $1 to $2 per book. Publishers, agents, distributors, marketers, and the like make the lion’s share of the money.
Michelangelo Sistine Chapel Detail
Oh, you say, but what about all the luminary artists—the stars—and their extravagant lifestyles? The schizophrenia of capitalism occasionally hands an artist immeasurable success. Though she almost always has something to offer, the relationship between talent and remuneration is rarely one-to-one. All artists have something to offer. This bizarre imbalance demeans the efforts of other artists yet more. And it contributes to the blinding of society to the fallacy of its premises and machinations.
Creativity is the jewel arising from the intelligence of our species. It should be the object of our devotion. A few societies still honor the artist. It used to be and may still be that in Sweden, I think it was, young artists were solicited to audition their work to a national board. And promising artists were given stipends for life. For life! That’s commitment to the arts through supporting artists. Of course, like all human interactions, their system too, is never free from politics, but the cultural vision is more properly directed. This contrasts to the all-or-nothing version of capitalist art that we foster here. In this country, we limit our efforts to subsidizing agribusiness and oil companies. Message: “You are talented if you make money for others.”
I remember meeting the mother of a girlfriend when I was starting out as a songwriter, during which she responded to the news of my artistic stirrings with rolled eyes and a cryptic, “Lots of luck.” She did not need to express the hope that her daughter would not proceed in relationship with me. Perhaps if I had said, “I plan to be an international arms dealer,” we could have set a wedding date.
October 16, 2010
Starting over comes with laughter and hope. It comes from laughter and hope. This insight arises in me from my daily activity as a writer, where the sport is little more than redoing what was an earlier attempt to communicate. Dreams of perfection must be checked at the door.
Like any sport–be it soccer where we must head or kick the spinning ball to another player or into the net, or archery where the wind, the light, the tension of the bow string and the release effect the flight–the activity of writing is joining in the moment with the muse. . . and accepting the results.
The source of the muse has never been established. It can be engaged but not known. It feels too vast and bright to come from inside, yet it is too personal for it to reside in the ethers or under the control of another (presumed) entity. So without knowing the mechanics we come each day to the ‘dock’ ready to jump in. We come naked. Confidence, laughter and carelessness are great friends.
Only when the piece has been thoroughly worked can we begin to have skill with its intent and nuance. This is true in the first chapter of a novel or–if we shrink the project down to an essay or a letter–in the first paragraph. The Trouble with Wisdom had many drafts, each an excursion coming to know the characters and their routes through challenges. And when it was all done, completely understood, it was time to begin with the first line, the first paragraph and scene. Never mind that I had rewritten it fifty times already, now I had to start again, because the first words are the connection to the world.
The antidote to thinking that our work is good and cannot be easily improved is to realize that it is nothing more than words, words that come from the muse. So let go and feel the novel that you know so well. How will it begin? What or who will speak first and how will those words land with the reader?
It turns out Zhampa’s entrance had to wait for several pages. First the Dorjay and the Purbha had to be born in the reader’s mind. The young lama had to feel the heft of the gold, had to peel back the brocade and see a thousand years of history gleaming in his hand. He had to pocket them and promise to return them. He had to disappear into the mountains of Tibet.
The opening? “At first light, Selpo Rinpoche woke to the roar of his monastery’s warning gong.” Ah! The months of work to arrive at such a simple thing–a person, a place, an occurrence, a time and something driving all of them; a warning gong.
I laugh with relief. The manuscript is now in the hands of publishing houses in New York. And I will need to laugh again when a publisher says, “Yes, we’ll take it on, but it will need a little work.” Later, I will need to roll in humor when the editor says, “Let’s start at the beginning and make it good.”
People and Culture
A Short History of Love and Shoes
Vermont Magazine January 2009
Way back in 1958, Anthony Napolitano was polishing a customer’s shoes in a Bennington cobbler shop when he heard the news that the most beautiful woman in the world was arriving in New York Harbor. Without hesitation, young Tony put on his best suit of clothes and got his brother to drive him to the city to make sure he was there when she walked down the gangway. His mind was full of dreams of holding her in his arms and never letting go.
To make a long story short, Rosa was the last person off the boat. To make a short story long, one has to talk about family, Italy, immigration, the Great Depression, World War II, honest work and good fortune.
In the early 1900’s, Tony’s parents emigrated from Italy to work on America’s railroads. But in the 20’s, when the work dried up, they left their three American-born children with relatives in upstate New York and returned to the little town of Moiano, southeast of Naples. There, Mrs. Napolitano gave birth to another son; Anthony. The year was 1927.
In the Depression, Anthony’s brother Domenico—sixteen years older—found work in a Troy, New York hardware store. One day in 1936, a wealthy Bennington businessman named King came into the store, asking where he might find a good shoe repairman and, having apprenticed for a cobbler, Domenico offered to repair Mr. King’s shoes right there. Mr. King was delighted with Domenico’s work. The way Tony tells the story, Bennington needed a shoe repairman and Mr. King set his brother up in business in the Feinberg Building on Main Street. To seal the good fortune, he filled the shop with state of the art machinery. All Domenico had to do in return was to call the business King’s Shoe Repair. In a time when repair of all things was preferable to buying new, the business thrived. It didn’t hurt that Domenico was also a ‘people person.’
Tony continues, “When I was just 18, right after The War, I graduated from the Police Force Academy of Torino. I tell you, it was a dangerous time to wear a uniform.” He explains that, stinging from years of fighting and a humiliating defeat, Italians were both hungry and angry. Crime was rampant, and both ordinary people and the syndicate families took their anger out on policemen. Many were murdered.
In 1953 synchronicity struck. Tony’s contract with the police was due for renewal and Domenico’s partner in King’s Shoe Repair decided to leave the business. It being time to have his own shop, Domenico bought a building around the corner on North Street. It had two apartments above and he wrote a letter to Tony asking him to come to America.
“Growing up in Italy,” Tony says, “I kept hearing about brothers and sisters in America. And I didn’t want to be a policeman any more, so I told him, ‘Okay.’”
A small problem developed while Tony was waiting for his immigration paperwork; he met the most beautiful woman in the world. So what’s a man to do? For Tony it was a no-brainer. He married Rosa and—it being true that love makes people blind—she was willing to live with his parents, while he took the boat to America “to check it out.”
At first Tony shined shoes all day long. “Everybody had their shoes shined in those days.” He waves a hand toward the shoeshine bench, which still dominates one wall of the shop on North Street. It’s big enough to seat three customers at once. “We were open on Sundays. It was a big day, because people came in before going to church.” After three months, Domenico started Tony working with the machinery, and he loved it.
Tony at his workbench
Two years passed. When Tony knew he would stay, he sent for Rosa, but with all the paperwork it took another eighteen months for her to arrive.” Rosa, a sweet woman with a warm smile, joins us. “I didn’t know a word of English and I hadn’t seen him for almost four years. I was nervous. That’s why I took so long getting off the boat.” That, and the fact that she had to carry all the baggage for two people. You see, she brought her daughter Maria, almost three years old, to meet her father for the first time.
“The policeman on the dock told me, ‘Sir you can’t go through there,” says Tony about seeing Rosa on the gangplank. “Well, I pushed right by him and ran over. And we’ve been together ever since. Fifty-one years. We moved right upstairs into the apartment next to Domenico.” The brothers worked together for ten more years, until 1968, when Tony bought the business and the building. He and Rosa remodeled the upstairs into one apartment that has served as their home ever since.
Downstairs, however, King’s Shoe Repair looks the same as it did in the fifties; old wood floors in the open area where you walk in, the shoeshine bench where conversations of joy, gossip and politics echo from the past. The shelves for new shoes anchor the far wall and, of course, there is a special green chair where patrons sit to have their feet sized. A high service counter cuts the room in half and, behind it, a modern cash register (from the sixties) shares space with a workbench worn from countless repair jobs. Its surface is buried in tools of every sort, thread, pieces of leather, an anvil and a vise. Behind that, the massive, black machinery from 1936 still hums like a Cadillac. In the adjoining room are several stitching machines. The tasks lie there as they did at the end of the day on Saturday ready for a man to pick up on Monday.
Tony and Rosa finish each other’s sentences. “He works all the time,” Rosa says. “I tell him he should slow down.”
Tony rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “What would I do up there?” he says pointing at the ceiling—the floor of his apartment. “I love to work. I got to keep moving.” Rosa smiles and nods. The love of a twenty-year-old Italian beauty still fuels the gesture. “I love repairing things for people.” His hands show his excitement. Beautiful workman’s hands. Strong and flexible, though he confesses that they’re a little stiff these days. “You name it, I can fix it. Hammocks. Suitcases. Tents. Anything. It makes me feel so good.”
“Baseball gloves,” Rosa says. “And harnesses. He sharpens skates, too.”
“That’s right. Things were slow once, so I figured out we could pick up a few bucks by doing skates.”
Rosa is comfortable in the shop, but she says ‘no’ when asked if she repairs shoes, too. “I do other things. I do tailoring and special projects. On the machines out back.” Her favorite is an old Singer treadle sewing machine, much older than either her or Tony.
Tony and Rosa in the shop
“She replaces zippers,” Tony says proudly. “The heavy duty metal kind, on boots that come in and winter jackets.”
When conversation turns to the shoe business today, Tony explains that the quality of shoes is terrible. America sends its best leather overseas so foreign craftsmen can make fancy shoes for their own people. “And we buy the junk they make,” he says shaking his head. “You wouldn’t believe what they use in shoes nowadays. Plastic and cardboard. But, of course, I repair whatever people want. I once had a woman come in who said, ‘I can’t bear to throw out these slippers. They feel so good.’ They were just cloth and cardboard. Falling apart. There was nothing there, but I fixed them. I gave them back to her better than when they were new. She was so happy.”
As for the current recession, Rosa says that actually more people are coming in now than usual. And Tony shows no signs of wanting to retire. In fact, his goal is to become the oldest shoemaker in the history of the United States. But about the long-term future, they grow quiet. Neither can see it with clarity. Only a handful of people in the state repair shoes nowadays. “We would love to have some young person come in and learn the trade, Tony says, but it’s hard work. You have to be strong, and persistent and take pride in what you do. You have to be personable and be a problem solver.” He looks out the window as if trying to see a viable candidate. “The hours are long, and young people want to make a lot of money. You don’t make a lot of money in shoe repair.”
They agree on the keys to a successful business: service and honesty. “If you tell them it will be ready Tuesday,” Tony begins, “it has to ready Tuesday.” And Rosa finishes, “Otherwise they won’t come back. We’ve never needed to advertise; our customers do it for us.”
Tony recalls, “One day a woman called about losing her wallet somewhere in town. She had left it on the counter and I told her I was holding it for her. It was full of money. A year later she told me that she was surprised to see that money.” He smiles. “You have to treat people right. And people like to be greeted when they come in.”
Let’s be honest. Warmth is not a problem for Tony and Rosa. Talking with them feels like the prelude to sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner. “The best part of the business is the people. It’s like a big family. You have to understand, we don’t have much family here. So our customers are our family. We are still devoted to Italy and to the old ways, but Vermont has been good to us. We love this state. We love being here.”
Times Union 5/9/2012
Sometimes, when success emboldens a playwright to reach beyond the ordinary, sublime work results. Such is the case with Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s drama about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, now playing at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge New York.
Though many have seen the film based on the play, sitting mere feet from formidable actors transports us to the palace drawing rooms and destitute flats of Eighteenth Century Vienna in a way that film cannot. And what a journey it is. In two acts we witness the life and death struggle of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, court composer to Emperor Joseph II, who vie to present their best art to the world. In the process, art itself is examined, as are fate, talent, ambition, intrigue, family responsibility and devotion to God. Mozart’s seemingly effortless genius is naïvely drawn into war with Salieri’s persistent mediocrity and murderous jealousy.
The fictitious narrative takes place in the last hour of Salieri’s life as a flashback to his youth when the even-younger Mozart arrives on the scene to compete for funds from the city’s royal and wealthy patrons. Mozart’s innate freedom to break musical convention allows him to compose circles around Salieri, However, this same tendency expresses itself as flagrant disregard for social mores. In short order, Mozart’s tasteless behavior threatens the very relationships he needs to survive. Being well trained, Salieri realizes how his employment and position in history are threatened by Mozart’s gifts and he succumbs to using guile to destroy his foe. In the ensuing battle we see, and hear, Mozart composing his finest work against great odds.
Hubbard Hall’s antiquity—high ceilings, wood floors and velvet curtain—enhances our flashback to the time. While the proscenium stage is used for vignettes in the palace, opera houses and Bauhaus, where such distance is appropriate, the intimate work of the play takes place amongst the risers. The set centers on a grand piano and, to our great delight, both lead actors play some of their music live. In one of theater’s most challenging roles, John Hadden (current Artistic Director of Hubbard Hall) turns actor. As Salieri, he embodies the essence of longing, deceit and jealousy. His emotive power and stamina are true to Salieri’s ambition. In the vast ranging role of Mozart, Miles Mandwelle moves with confidence from childish brilliance to broken soul. Besty Holt, as Mozart’s wife Constanze, deftly shows a woman being honed by the failings of both men, turning from selfish girl to strained wife to saint and finally to exploiter of her dead husband’s work, with which profits she takes care of her children.
In fabulous period costumes by Sherry Recinellas, the supporting cast plays multiple roles as dukes and derelicts, grand dames and gossiping ne’er-do-wells. They create operas, complete with onstage audience, numerous plays within this one play. We follow them all, hating the inevitable conclusion. Was it consumption, syphilis, poison, broken heart that killed Mozart?
Excellence as we see here is not random. We are fortunate that Jeanine Haas (Artistic Director of Pauline Production Theater Company in Massachusetts) jumped at the chance to direct this complex show. The lighting and choreography delight the eye. And all through is Mozart’s music, which steals every show . . . except this one.
Blue Uniforms and Yellowjackets
Anderson Valley Advertiser 6/20/2015
I blame Yellowjackets. If they hadn’t stung me two years ago this week I’d never have become an EMT, sitting long shifts every week in the Anderson Valley Ambulance Barn waiting for impermanence to flex its muscles on the fate of our neighbors.
I was out raking hay by hand on that nice June morning when four of them little suckers roared out and stung me for scraping over their nest. I did the normal things: ran away cussing, ripped off my shirt to facilitate their retreat, and struggled with humiliation to be laid low by critters that weigh less than a gram. Then after admiring how my hand was swelling up where two of them had hit me, I got hold of myself and went back to raking. I’m over six feet tall. I’ve been stung many times. I can handle this. Stand back.
Rake, rake, rake. . . And what’s that? I lean on the handle a minute and feel my heart racing and my armpits starting to itch, where I know they didn’t sting me. Is it the heat? No, I thought. Must be adrenaline. But what about this feeling woozy? I blew right by the sign that I thought a shot of scotch would be just the ticket to settle me down, even though it was before noon. Mind you scotch, though a lovely drink, is something I save for company and Christmas. Well, 4th of July, too. Anyway, I set off for the house, thinking I was clever to be so creative and present.
But my lady is smarter than me. (Duh, she a woman.) Next thing I know I’m in an armchair, taking Benadryl and preparing to look bright and balanced to fake out the ambulance people who she’s called all the way out to the Deep End on a Sunday. I’m only partway through putting on my calm face and working up my story when firefighters in helmets and full gear and folks in civvies are walking in, radios on their hips blaring to some dispatch called Howard Forest, and hitting me with questions. I’m ready to give my speech and, damn, if they’re not talking with a helicopter circling overhead, trying to figure out the best place to land.
Okay. Now I want to die. Maybe that will teach them a lesson for making such a big deal of things. Though I’m not sure how that’s going to salvage my dignity with Valerie, who’s wringing her hands in a way that makes me think she wants me to die, too. And that should have been another sign. She rarely has a murderous thought.
Then the boys in ambulance-blue uniforms come in with medical bags along with a fellow named Don who gave off an aroma of apples, and they’re poring over me. I’ve got a blood pressure cuff on and some weird medical squeezing thing my finger and they’re flicking a flashlight in my eyes like I’m a drug addict. The only thing that keeps me from calling my lawyer is the fascination that I know a lot of these people. Mark, a damn fine builder is the lead EMT and Charlie, the tree surgeon, is the driver. What are they doing wearing ambulance uniforms and how come I didn’t know about their secret lives? And I do yoga with Kyle who has come in case she’s needed and there’s Martha smiling in the back having rumbled down the long dirt road from the mountains. For a second I presume they’ve all come for the religious service I didn’t know I was about to give.
I look for the microphone and instead they slap an oxygen mask on me, though I hear them say that it doesn’t look like I have sign of—and they use some long medical word—yet. But that they should take me to the ER just to be sure. I look at my lady and she’s nodding, right as I hear that the helicopter has landed down at Handley Vineyards. And I realize I haven’t sheltered my meager funds or updated my will the way I’d meant to.
The story would be better if I had really died or needed some four-inch needle jammed into my heart to bring me back from wherever it is that the White Light lives. But it turns out I’d had my first ever allergic reaction and my body handled it pretty well, with the help of Benadryl. And after a sweet ride with Mark in the back and watching him carry himself like a medical angel, I hung out in Ukiah Valley Medical Center’s ER, where I seemed stable enough to the staff to barely make them look at me. Very anti-climactic.
Still, with the sheen of my invincibility gone, I was now set loose on the slippery slope leading to death, and to prove it came home with two Epi-pens in my pocket to give me twenty more minutes of heartbeat if I ever got stung again and fell into full-fledged “anaphylaxis”—that’s the word they used—all for the low, low cost of $180 after the medical discount. (Valerie had been smart enough to sign us up for the ambulance membership—the best deal insurance deal in modern America, so the trip was free.) Gradually I realized I’d been missing some basic clues about how this valley operates. A whole darn volunteer ambulance service operates here 24/7, made up of people you see in the stores, at the Grange Pancake breakfasts or wine tastings. They show up when you need them and leave without any fanfare. Cool, I thought, as I flew back East to take care of things in Vermont.
While there, we heard news that Mark had a stroke, a bad one, and Charlie fell out of a tree and would be months in rehab. I did some quick math. If they’re all volunteers, they would need people. Which is how I entered the world Emergency Medical Services where I have met a wonderful set of women and men who do miracles and who blush when you raise the point with them. They study hard, train regularly and give big parts of their lives so you can have longer ones yourselves.
Our number is 911. Nothing personal, but we hope never to see you.
The China Dispatches
In 2005, several years into the writing of my first novel, The Trouble with Wisdom, when the story began erupting on the page, my characters demanded that I travel to see the land and the people they meet in order to represent them and their adventures authentically. This resulted in a 100-day journey to a country that had not yet opened to the world after centuries of enforced inferiority. My timing was extraordinary, because China had not yet made the radar in America except in political circles and was at that time straining to open and become what we now have come to know. So I was able to travel anywhere I chose without being followed. I toured many regions in Tibet that soon became closed in the runup to the 2008 Olympics in the totalitarian attempt to hide the protests of the Tibetan people. I regret to say that Tibet still is not open and, since then, the forced influx of Han Chinese has overwhelmed all sense of Tibetan culture’s ability to ever recover. This has long been, of course, China’s aim, to once and for all seize Tibet and the Muslim north, which effectively has doubled its landmass to house it 1.4 billion people. This bald-faced occupation and assimilation has been on a scale and suppression that the world has never witnessed. Tragically, it turns a blind eye. I was therefore able to visit remote regions that few Westerners have seen and will never have the chance to see again, as the indigenous culture is being destroyed. These pieces were emails written home to a group of vicarious travelers and have not been edited. May you enjoy the trip. (All pictures from the Web.)
The Pigeon Has Landed
Beijing University October 4th, 2005
Greetings to you all from sunny and smogless Beijing, Arrived during the highest point of the Golden Weekend, the national holiday in China, a 5 to 11 day affair depending upon where you are. This is one of many “things” that turn up when traveling basically clueless. But what a great time to see the city. Things, of course, would have turned out quite poorly, (and in a such a way that I would be lamenting arriving on this weekend), had I not been met by a total stranger at the airport, who took it upon herself to be the life ring for a non-swimmer in her world, a 22 year old angel, a friend of a friend of a … somewhere back connecting to my daughter’s trip here last year. She and Sierra have never met. But that is of no concern to her. So the first face I met after my two-step through customs was pure and backed by a great heart. More on this in a paragraph or two. There is of course, paperwork to fill out when you come to China. It is a national art form, I am told. And being of much higher upbringing than I normally display, I filled out the form truthfully. Yes, I was bringing in animal products. Not live animals, or even banned parts of dead ones, certainly not something related to endangered species. Nonetheless, I did stuff a 12 ounce chunk of cheddar in its hermetically sealed pouch into my bag just before taking off, so that I might have something to chew on in case things turned out badly in other ways. And in my discussion on the plane with the military attache of the whole dang American embassy in China, an Air Force brigadier general–I kid you not–the representative of the greatest (for now) military power on earth, who was seated across the aisle, we finally thought that, yes, I should declare the cheese, though I think I pushed him to make me choose that option. You see, to protect the more secret mission of my trip, which is to deliver some posters to a clinic on the Tibetan plateau, posters about how to wash your hands after you change your baby’s diaper and before you cook for the visiting lama, I decided to not run afoul of the Chinese Guard for starters. And when I showed my slip to the customs agent, he cleared his throat, gave a worried look and wondered how he was going to deal with this breach of regulations. He did what he was trained to do, which was to take it to his neighboring agent. And when the word ‘cheese’ was mentioned, the latter gave a groan and put his head into his hand with despair and a touch of comedy, that clearly told me “How could you be so stupid as to do that, because now we’re going to have to do our job?” So I got a bit more attention as I proceeded through the gates and then had to finally produce said ‘contraband’ in a special office. And the agent said, “Is that all?” I said ‘yes’ sheepishly and he said, “You know you are not allowed to bring this into the country. We will have to take it” And so I saw hunger coming on and isolation too, because by now any saint waiting for me beyond the gate would have decided that I was not coming and would certainly have left. The agent went back into the office to enjoy the cheddar, with or without others, and I got ready to meet my destiny.
Xu Ti Wen–which doesn’t sound like it looks, and which I cannot remember when I take my eyes from the printed version she gave me–took me the 75-minute bus and taxi ride to the northwest quadrant of the city to this university and dropped me, exhausted from 28 hours up, on the third floor in #314. . . with promises to return at 7:30 am (“so we can beat the rush hour”) to take me to Tien an men Square and other delights on the morrow. And there she was, having walked home the 30 minutes to her apartment and back again in the morning, and off we went to the great square. Being a holiday, it turns out that we were not the only people who had come with the idea to see the absolute heart of the People’s Republic of China. If you have ever seen a river of black pants and white shirts, with sunglasses and children in tow, moving twenty abreast to find a place to pose the family in front of massive buildings, then I need not describe this for you. But really, it was great fun to see what the empire could dish out when it wasn’t even trying. . . And all along the route, in the buses and in front of Mao’s mausoleum, Ti Wen is trying to get me to count to ten in Chinese, you know, to be actually at all intelligible. And she is a fabulous teacher, though only 22, and I was able to reciprocate by getting her to actually place her tongue properly to say “l” and “r”. When she heard herself make the sounds her face lit up as if aided by nuclear power. And our bond was assured. In fact, she is returning again today to continue my studies, and me hers, though I dare say that she will reach her goal sooner than I will mine. Tomorrow I am off to the western city of Xining and by doing so am really walking the plank, because they won’t speak English there except in rare cases and my Tibetan won’t be understood by them because they speak a completely different dialect. But I do have two invitations to teach English in separate villages, which should just prove a full-blooded hoot. I will let you know.
Traveling Without a Goal
Xining, October 16th, 2005
It is a rare opportunity in this life to allow oneself–and to be allowed–to move at a pace and in a direction determined by the day and the place where one wakes. This writer’s itinerary across the Canadian West, Alaska and China was determined by musings made in an armchair that began some four years ago. But it was so vague that any course could be taken, and I decided to leave it that way to get into the spirit of the little band that takes the journey in the story. The truly unforgettable aspect of these months is the experience of breaking through the chatter of neurotic mind that wants to have some handle on the future, be it the roads one will take, tonight’s place of sleep, the next meal, what or whom one will see, which train, plane . . . What I have found is that letting go of these simple moment to moment controls, meeting the sub-conscious gossip and flipping it a little, yields great physical and psychological energy. I am moving with a great burden lifted, free of a constant thought process of securing myself. And of course, if one is thinking about what is to come, one will not really be in a state of mind to see what is there, except maybe on its surface. Isn’t it the depth, though, that we all long to encounter? So, a few days in the life: When I left the mid-west city of Xining to go teaching in the outback, I learned on the bus that the woman I was going to assist and to see was not available to teach or visit. It turns out that last week was the one before the Chinese government sends its scouts to examine the files of the day-to-day activities and accomplishments of the students, which are painstakingly compiled by the teachers. (So extensive is this labor on the part of the latter, that it makes it difficult for them to teach in any in-depth fashion.) Anyhow I continued en route to deliver some materials to a clinic being built in a remote village of Tibetan families. And in the process met the wonderful family of which the woman teacher, Limo Drolma, is part. And she also made an appearance. She apologized for the change in plans. Later that evening, after a lovely day visiting a one-of-a-kind building in a little Tibetan village where people have had no access to care like they are about to receive, she and her cousin – -both in their twenties – -came to my hotel back in Hualong, a little berg that serves as the county seat for the area and asked what I would do. I said, “I guess I’ll go to Labrang [a huge monastery that is operating under full power] and down to Langmusi”. An hour later Limo Drolma returned and said, “My family says that it is dangerous for you to go alone. They want us to go with you. The Chinese will steal from you.” “What about your school?” “My brother (another teacher) called the headmaster and explained that you are a friend of the family and that we should help you.” “And your files” “I will do them when I return.” (It is the Tibetan cultural way to help whenever possible. You have to experience it to believe it. The other woman is waiting for a teaching job and was free to come in any case, but she knew only a thimble full of English.) “Okay”, I said, “On the condition that I pay for all your expenses as we go.” That was hard for them to swallow, because taking is not on their agenda and because their families had already given them money to go with me, but I insisted and the next morning we set off overland to Labrang. We saw their world as few westerners will ever get to see it. Limo Drolma is a cross between Mother Teresa and a Pitbull and Tashi Chotso is just Mother Teresa and between the two of them, they slipped us into the heart of each place we stopped. And the land in between is what I couldn’t have found without them. We journeyed back 100 and 300 years. We ended up making a Buddhist pilgrimage of four of the great monasteries in these parts, three of which are off the beaten path. And we saw dozens of others as we passed.
In Labrang, with the help of two other Tibetan gentlemen, who seized the opportunity to get involved, we were given a meeting with the third highest-ranking lama in the Dalai Lama’s lineage, behind the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. How did we get in? Limo Drolma said that this American traveler had come all this way, the two gentlemen carried the message into the Rinpoche’s sanctum, and the doors opened, where they would not have even for my brave little band leaders. We used the buses as our school room. I had been asked to assess Limo Drolma’s English for other reasons and to teach her and so we went right after it, much to the amazement and sometimes amusement of the Tibetans traveling for more typical reasons. Of particular interest to them was my knowledge of the Lhasa dialect of Tibetan and my yearning to understand the local one, Amdo-Ge, which is, to the ear, almost entirely different. It is clear that some of the riders had never seen a white skinned person. I will always remember one encounter with a lean-built woman in full highlander nomadic dress who turned full round and whose eyes landed on me with the primordial look of a deer assessing new phenomena. She and they were motionless, so deep brown that the pupils blended in; without blinking or human coyness, she tried, I think, to find the archetype to relate to the strange being. It was not a look of fear, just one of deep searching. I don’t believe that her repeated looks resolved for her if I was friend or foe, but I returned her look and received the gift of her power and dignity being emblazoned in my cerebellum. Another gesture that still glows warm was being lovingly swatted with a nun’s rosary as I walked back into the bus after we all got off for pee break in a high grassland pass. Little things like this were common. Climbing a set of stairs to a temple in Tsu (Chinese: Hezuo) we came upon an old layman in contemplation with his thumb pushing beads. I saw him move his leg for the women to pass by, but he made no sign of recognition or contact. . . until I came close, when he raised his eyes and turned his right thumb in the upright position, a little grin of victory and encouragement crossing his lips.
I loved the red cliffs and the sparse vegetation, the ubiquitous mud house compounds (about which I will write more later), the rivers choked brown with the same mud and gravel. And most stunning are the grass highlands with the yaks, the white herdsmen’s tents, the sheep herded into canyon pockets for culling, the men and women working together, with their year-round Tibetan topcoats half-off, one sleeve hanging to the ground, and the last of the barley, bending heavy -green in a sea of soft terrain in the grey light of approaching winter. The labor, joy, and success of the summer months were palpable in the air. There is no Chinese influence here still, no concrete to break the vistas of a truly raw land. May the world allow places such as this to live and prosper in their timeless way.
Chaos Theory Revisited
Xining, October 16th, 2005
With your permission, I feel a few essays coming forth from my E-pen. A series of travel blow-by-blow would, of course, be easy, but they would be more self-indulgent and less informative. How can you see the specific mountainside that I have in my mind’s eye? Chinese society does not operate like the one I know. It is easy to think that, in terms of lifestyle, what is familiar to us is all that makes sense or all that there is. To characterize this place I will go out on a limb to say that this society is much more at ease with chaos. Does that mean that things don’t function? No, things here function quite well. Take traffic. Yes, vehicular movement. What could one say about such a standard thing: cars move in their lanes and pass each other and people try to stay alive, while traveling at speeds that the body was not designed for. In China there is yellow line down the middle of paved roads just as in the West. The traffic travels on the right. . . on paper. . .somewhere in some government office. It seems that here the yellow line is an adornment to an otherwise grey surface and at times it serves as a very helpful reference point so that drivers can know how far they are from the center of the road. Yes, drivers do stay on the right when there is no reason to wander left, but in China one of the first things you see is that vehicles from several centuries share these transport lanes. There are Japanese cars, and buses and little red taxis, and long transport trucks from the sixties and three-wheeled and four-wheeled cabs–both covered and uncovered—farm tractors that look like rototillers on steroids pulling all manner of wagon or cart. There are also bikes with varying numbers of wheels, some dragging carts or other loaded bikes; and little one-lunger flatbed trucks (one of my favorites because of their engines; you can count the engine strokes as they go by, sometimes at a crawl.) There are motorcycles, both two and three-wheeled, that again are used for anything but pleasure. There are horses (but not many), mules and burros (more) dragging wagons and sleds, the occasional shaggy beast, flocks of sheep and goats, and cows that have decided to seek a more spiritual existence where the grass is greener. There are people pushing and pulling any kind of design of wagon usually of two wheels, but I have seen something akin to the creeper cart that mechanics used to use to get under your car, stacked high with stoves or firewood or grain, being pushed along or dragged by something else.
All these things are going down the road, and as you can guess they do not travel at comparable speeds. The custom is that if you are going faster you pull left. So far it sounds familiar, no? On the right may be a man with a cart and mule. So the little taxi over-loaded with a local family swings left. If you are in the flatbed truck going faster still you pull outside the taxi and if you are in the long-distance bus whose driver is loath to slow down you will be passing the whole lot of these things. . . on the left. Then comes the Toyota SUV with the government officials. They too go left. If these events are simultaneous you can have three or four lanes of passing vehicles on a two-lane road, (most of which have wide shoulders). Now some of you have already remembered that a road is usually a two-way street–that’s so bad that it’s not even a pun. Imagine now that traffic coming the other way is also engaged in this custom of passing left. They are in your lane. The best thing to do is to accelerate if you can to get by the obstacles and dodge right, but if not, to brake sharply and hard, and to swing in behind something else, for just enough time for the on-coming traffic to pass. Imagine now that sometimes it is easier to swing through holes in the on-coming traffic than to fall back in your own line. What you get in practice is a very dynamic driving experience. Chaos. But if you know the rules and your vehicle, this all functions very well and everyone gets to her destination with rarely a dent. In fact, I am willing to bet that these drivers know the dimensions and capabilities of their vehicles far better than any of us in this little E-group. I am sure bus drivers know if their mirror is the same height as that on the on-coming truck or if they can get closer and have the mirrors overlap. In the cities the same rules apply, but in traffic tie-ups you will see cars going absolutely everywhere to make it through intersections. The main foundation of all of this though, is to make sure that you never get your car, bus etc. in a head-on situation with another where neither can move forward, because then someone would have to admit that they were wrong by backing up. And that really is undesirable. I have been in a taxi that faced down a bus for a full five minutes before the taxi actually grudgingly backed up just enough. (Cars were packed up behind both vehicles too.) In this situation, bystanders stand and watch and make comments as to the import of the situation on the turning of the globe in the heavens. But as I say, this is really rare. And the whole dance is orchestrated by the less than discreet honking of horns, which is not aggressive as in the US, though they are loud. They are a sign that says to others, “Here I am. Move to the right.” Even toddlers know the rule. Without looking over their shoulders to see what might be approaching from behind, they just wander a few steps to the right as they can. If they can’t, the honker must make an adjustment. Killing people and crashing vehicles does not seem to be an acceptable thing here any more than where you live. At first glance it is a wonder that such a system works, but it is like skaters on a rink–a beautiful thing to watch. The whole of this society, then, has a skill in making adjustments on the fly for what ever comes up, which is a fabulous ability, if you think about it. There is very little need for lots of regulation. People just make things work. And they do it together with very little rancor. If we in the West have anything to fear from China it may be this ability they have to dance in the fire.
Buildings and Roads
October 24th, 2005
Note: This is a mildly technical piece and may not appeal to many of you, but the way these people live fascinates and amazes me. What do you think? Of the basic human needs food is first and shelter second. For building, cultures use what is at hand, and if there were ever forests in this part of the world, they are a long-faded memory. What they do have here is a deep-soiled, fine-particulate, chestnut (red/brown) clay. It is the basis of the farm fields, the foothills and even the soaring mountain peaks, which make this area look like the roughest part of the Rockies. (This ‘area’ is specifically Qinghai province, which is west and north of the center point of China.) These very steep slopes are solid clay with rarely a rock to be seen. What makes them stay that way over the millennia escapes me. So they build with clay–every kindergartener’s dream–and with poles from the alder trees that have been replanted over the last twenty years to recoup earlier devastation. The builder in me is astonished at what they can do with these few things. For building, there is no transportation necessary; the materials are on the site. They build compounds of 50 x 70 feet or so with all the walls made of rammed earth. They fill simple wooden forms, 6 feet long, 15 inches wide and 12 inches deep, with a mixture of the ground as it is and water. And then the family members come and jump on it until it is packed tight and hard. Then they move the forms up and begin again. Joints between the forms are filled with more mud/clay. They go up to nine feet high, with no windows and only one double door entry to allow vehicles, animals and crops in and out. Inside is a continuous row of rooms built along the compound walls and a courtyard is left in the middle, as in the homes of the Middle East. It is a fabulous design for utility, privacy and protection from the elements. The roofs are true genius. Flat, slopping gently toward the courtyard with a long overhang to allow one to walk underneath to all the rooms without getting wet. They are made with many alder poles and across them is a packed layer of twigs and sticks. Then a layer of straw is finally topped with a thick layer of clay, smoothed to velvet. It sheds water like a dream without a leak and lasts for about as long as an asphalt roof, 20 -25 years. The resulting surface is an added working space, used mostly for drying and storing crops. And it is very strong. The whole structure is. Though the rains fall on it, the sun hardens the surface to a mild concrete and so it takes many years for the system to be undermined. Three very different cultures–Chinese, Tibetans and Muslims–live in exactly the same design. Some compounds share a common wall and on the level areas, village design is whatever the land offers. The ‘streets’ wind helter skelter. But on the hillsides these compounds are stacked like stairs, often with no walking lanes in between. These days, this clay right out of the ground is also made into bricks, work the Muslims seem to prefer. I have seen the ground around the brick kilns dug away 10 feet or more, and the exposed clay is farmed with the same success that the original topsoil had been. The brick is laid with…what else? clay; no cement. Then the walls are covered in a sloping layer of clay to yield the same look as the time honored buildings. The only concession to modernity is glass windows and a light bulb in every room, if the dwellers are wealthy. For fancy buildings the exterior walls have paint applied right to the clay surface. When repairs are made, say if a hole develops or if the rain finally makes a wall tumble, they just seem to heap brick or clay, or both, into the breach without much fastidiousness and cover the place with more clay. The farm and garden fences are also rammed earth, about four feet high. The threshing grounds which are vital to every village are smoothed packed clay, like tennis courts only firmer. . . Are you bored with all this?
Almost every field in this very sloping land is terraced to catch the rain from the two rainy periods, winter and summer. The ground is so stable that one merely needs to dig out the uphill terrace wall and spread the waste flat; it will stay that way a very long time, hardened by the elements. And yet when the time comes for a new need or repair it is all easily dug again. There does not seem to be any land that has not been worked, perhaps for five centuries. (This was a nomadic area in the early part of Chinese history.) Every vista is tapestry of incalculable hand labor. Roads are carved out of the hillsides just like the terraces. No extra material is added. Even the Chinese are building their vast road network in the same way… In this land the shortest distance between two points is usually right up over the mountains, because passes are rare and distant, and are also high. So every commute involves dozens of switchbacks; this is not a land for those who suffer from acrophobia (is that the right word for fear of heights?). Traveling up the new roads, one can peer over the edges (dramatic drops) and see generations of older roads winding their way up the same slopes, now returning to pasture land.
As for these mountainsides,. I am sure that every inch is and has been grazed for countless time. One can see the denting from the yak and sheep right to the peaks of the mountains. The cities are places where these clay compounds crowd right up to what the Chinese have been building lately in the centers. And, ironically, it seems that the modernization the Han are working so hard to bring is not a paradigm shift. Instead of clay, they have moved the two degrees to concrete. They seem to have a total love affair with the material, which makes sense in some ways, coming as they do from a legacy of clay. All off the new construction I have seen is concrete–floors, walls and ceilings. Rarely are these surfaces covered with anything more than paint; mostly it is a warehouse look. And this is not just a regional phenomenon. It was true of the hotel I stayed in Beijing. Overall, this style seems to come loaded with the quality of making things look old and worn. When the concrete has an exterior treatment, it is often with a white shiny tile, like in a bathroom. Windows sit in metal frames. The pace of the construction in China is so brisk that it seems the designers have avoided the functional and aesthetic values for eave or cornice treatment. In fact most roofs are flat, and squared-off with the walls; the overall shape of the buildings is box-like. I wonder if this is a full rejection of their ancestors love of the most elaborate detail in building. To compound the monotony, the Chinese have leveled most of everything that was built before 1949. I expect all the clay compound will go when the concrete funds are there. Except for the few tall ones in the city centers, most buildings are much longer than they are wide or tall and, to house their millions of people, they are lined up in rows in both directions, so from the air they look like dominoes lying with the long side down. It makes the artistic mind go mad. And I ponder that perhaps the most unfortunate rebirth in these current times is to be chosen–or worse, to chose–to be an architect here.
25 October 25th 2005
Greetings ‘From there and back again” as Bilbo Baggins would say.
I have committed fraud in a foreign country. I have represented myself as a member of a Canadian philanthropic organization in the office of the head government official in a county district. There are stories of people who have engaged in such things winding up in red clay graves with a bullet fired low into the back of the skull. So far I have escaped such a fate. Perhaps I should explain.
This traveling without a goal makes strings of connections possible and I am still riding the wave of the one contact I came here with. Someone who knows someone. . . I have met a remarkable young man 24 years of age, who was raised in a clay compound village at 10,000 feet, who tended sheep, goats and yaks as a boy and who went to a dismal, mud school to learn to read and write. He was unusually bright and the village went to great effort to send him thirty minutes and 2000 feet lower to another dismal school, still in what we would consider the outback. At 15 years old he was found by an American saint (the man for whom I edited the book a few weeks back), who is collecting the best and brightest students from the four provinces around the city of Xining. He brings them together (currently two hundred in residence) for a curriculum totally in English that finishes their high schooling and prepares them for transfer to universities in China and abroad. This young man, Legiater, (Tibetan meaning: Victorious Liberated Body) told me that when he was about eight years old, sitting in that dank, dark schoolroom, he decided that when he grew up, he would bring a new school to his village. I equate this a little bit with Ben Franklin starting a newspaper in his teens. Lergiater is not only smart, he is a visionary and an operator. He also is fluent in three languages (all Tibetans must learn Chinese), handsome and sophisticated. His vision has now become to change the fortunes of all the villages in his end of the county, all of which are poor beyond belief and which still live mostly in the 1500’s time-frame. Over the last four years he has put together funding, management and logistics for development projects, seven of which are complete. He had a six-room school house built in his village in 2003- – three class rooms, a library and living quarters for two teachers; in China store owners, teachers, hotel staff and a whole range of other working class people live at their places of work, which means they sleep behind the counters. It is 24/7 for real. His village had no water collection system–no spring or well. They walked for it, summer and winter. Now there is water pouring year round from a pipe in the center of the 43 households (read Buildings and Roads). And for 500 years his village septic system had been the streets, right alongside the mules, goats etc.. Now his village and three others have astonishingly nice brick outhouses, one for each family. This will help cut down on disease transmitted both ways between humans and animals. Other villages were (and some still are) even more desperate for water. On a tour of these villages last week I saw a woman go to her courtyard and turn a tap to fill a bucket with sparkling, clear water. (At 10,00 feet it is understood that the water is cool.) Every house in her village is so equipped, thanks to the vision of this one young man. Two villages needed water in their fields more than near the houses. Lergiater got the pipe and tools so the villagers could dig trenches along the hillsides and lay pipe and staging across the canyons. Remember that the clay here is perfectly impervious to water, so a trench works beautifully. One of these projects is six kilometers long which 35 villagers dug and laid in something like 40 days. And you would not believe the slopes on which some of these trenches were dug. Lives were revolutionized, though please understand that this area will remain subsistence agriculture for a long time to come. China’s Western Development–so- called–is, according to Lergiater, basically a system of roads so that these vast lands can be filled with Chinese. This solves two of Beijing’s problems simultaneously: it reduces the population density in the fertile central lowlands and it fully assimilates lands that China has taken. Soon all areas will be Chinese dominant, which will complete Mao’s imperialist intentions. (This makes Israel’s plan look feeble by comparison.) This interpretation is not Lergiater’s alone. I have heard it elsewhere before coming here and it is even in the American press that our government is apprised of the situation. However, we American’s have no moral ground on which to stand on this issue. Our forebears accomplished the same thing, in some ways more brutally; but this episode in China is happening as the world watches. [I neglected to mention in my last email that the consequences of the omnipresent construction is that dust is on every surface and clay dirt rounds the corners of the curbs and next to buildings, city and country. Further when the Chinese build roads, they build the whole thing at once. They take an old road and rip it up from end to end and employ 30 to 100 crews with picks and rakes and they spend years at it. Good for employment. Really difficult for travel. Bouncing over potholes mile after mile.] Development: there is next to none for the native cultures, for the poor, because Beijing knows there will be no return on such investment. No schools, no paved roads past the super highways, no phones, no water or sewer projects. But the poverty is a wound in the soul of the proud Chinese. And to their credit they HAVE strung power lines to most places, a definate feat given the cost and landscape, which gives a light bulb to many who never had one. And it brings TV, which may be the subject of another dispatch. . . The highways being built end in city centers which are torn down and built anew for the immigrating Han. So real development needs people like Lergiater.
Qinghai Lake where I taught school for a week.
The Fraud! One toilet project ran over budget, because of material price increases as the project was working its way through channels to completion. Ever vigilant, Lergiater secured a promise from the county government to cover the 30,000RMB ($7,800 USD) overage, but the money has not been forth coming and the workers on the project have gone without pay. . . for a long time. So “L’s” plan was for me pose as an official for the foundation that put up the original budget, as a way to leverage the official at the top to release the funds. On a grey, cold day, I found myself in a grey, cold government building waiting for the head man. I was to speak in English and Lergiater would translate whatever it was that he wanted me to have said. (I was counting on the official not being bilingual.) Is fraud fraud if it is not successful? The official was unmoved by my presence or words. The other item that the government values along with concrete is paper records in triplicate; if there is no full paper trail, good deeds might go unpunished, so everywhere you go, there are forms meticulously filled out by clerks with a signature and a red stamp. Lergiater has a signed contract by both parties but it is not on the foundation letterhead and there is no foundation seal. This is problem. He has now undertaken to learn if the foundation even has a seal. So it is with things governmental. . . Fortunately I was not asked for my passport. On these days at 10,000 feet, I got to see the real thing. I lived in one of the clay compounds with Lergiater’s extended family; where yak dung and twigs are the only fuel; where the cook stove (and sole heat source) is dug into the clay floor and from which the smoke rises without a flue through the room to find the hole in the roof; where mutton is part of every meal and it comes from their flock, which is driven in through the elaborate Tibetan style gate in the compound into the courtyard and on into one of the rooms that serves as the barn. I know this mutton detail because when we traveled down to the county town to commit fraud, we took Lergiater’s brother, who brought two hides with the hooves still on, and I watched him on the street in a protracted negotiation with a Muslim hide dealer. He lost badly. The family was 0 and 2 for the day. I have traveled on roads where cars and even the rugged jeep we were in were never meant to go. I have seen snow fill the courtyard already and watched the women shovel the roofs and the threshing grounds at dawn so that if the weather broke they could continue with their harvest of wheat and beans. I have seen meditation caves that were long ago carved out of the sides of mountains that aren’t on any tourist tour. These are places where for hundreds of years a culture really showed its stuff. Nothing has changed here- – until recently.
October 28, 2005
I have been hard on certain aspects of this country in my last few emails, but I don’t want you to think that this is a negative place or that I am unhappy here. The energy of the people is thoroughly vibrant as they go about doing their best and engaging in survival. What we Americans accomplish with the lion’s share of the world’s fossil fuels, the Chinese (which include, I think, 56 minorities, though the Han make up more than 90 percent) accomplish virtually by hand. Though the roads they build are a mixed review if looked at through the political scope, as I did earlier, there is no mistaking the absolute guts and genius of the work on the engineering level.
I have traveled some amazing roads, roads that would not be attempted in the land of my birth. One road out of Hualong County town descended forty miles down a river gorge that, for centuries, had only been wide enough for the river and a mule and driver, though I am sure both travelers got wet many times. It hung on the sides of the cliff with tight turns and sweeping bridges, with the slopes rising 70 degrees above for a thousand feet on both sides . . . So though the use of concrete in the buildings is not much ‘to write home about’ (go figure! I did!), the bridges, the under and overpasses are brilliant. No obstacle seems too great to cross. Now while such a road in America would run into opposition on environmental grounds, a development with which I sympathize it is true that the river here did not fare so well. There are places where the rock from the construction above fell or was dumped into the watercourse. This is an aspect of a culture that is rocketing into a new age, trying to catch up with other parts of the world.
Another thing that really is a delight to see is the intimacy between members of the same gender. I am struck (still) by the straightforward way that people walk together. Mostly it is the women who walk hand-in-hand, or more often arm-in-arm, leaning together a bit these days into the wind on a cold street. Just like that, the intimacy seems bound to human time and survival. It doesn’t have a prurient whiff to it or a statement of some kind. Just people being naturally close. The men are more likely to display the same with an arm over the shoulder when sitting down, which says “comrades”, not “I can’t wait to take you home.”
That being established, there is no sexual display between people on the street. One never sees kissing not even a peck, and hugging doesn’t seem to be part of this culture. This last has left me with my arms and hands feeling funny at meetings and partings and I wait to see what happens, which is usually sweet gestures from three or more feet away (though I think I have accidentally trained my Tibetan host family here in Xining to shake hands. This may be akin to introducing small pox to the Native Americans, though I hope they will forget the ritual after I leave.) In my television research that occurs late at night in hotels (they all seem to have cable, no matter how rugged the quality of their other facilities), I have seen only one kiss.
This gives me a natural segue to another beauty that I see here. The Chinese (Han) women who can afford it (and whether due to competition or solidarity they all seem to) dress in fabulous clothes. Right up into their 30’s and 40’s they wear styles that strut their sexual power. I am sure that my feminist friends of both genders will sigh to learn that the outfits are tight pants, with high heels or high heeled boots (long points in the toes) with long fine tailored coats, buttons, studs, zippers that lead nowhere, slicing pockets, appliqué designs. . . all flags that say “I am beautiful”. And due to diet, work and a culture of walking and bicycle riding, cellulite is not in copious supply.
What makes this even more remarkable is that this is true in the country too. Perhaps it is that the population can only afford one set of clothes, but I see the Muslim women working on the threshing grounds in high-heeled boots or shoes. And their pants would serve double duty if later they had to go to the office. The Muslim men invariably wear suit coats at whatever labor, including shoveling. And for the work that they do, they keep these clothes looking very clean, a skill I have yet to understand; I seem to get a little scruffy, just washing the dishes. At the school in the sticks where I have been teaching for the last week, there are several tiny women who spend the day bent over like questions marks, sweeping with impossibly short brooms, wrapped head to foot in some sheet like covering. By chance when their shift was over, I discovered that they strip off the cloak to reveal dress pants and heeled shoes and head off, heads held high.
Beauty for the Tibetan women and men is not derived from any modern style. For those who make the choice, beauty comes from their traditional clothing, which were centuries in the making, form following function in a climate where the weather changes from hot to cold in the flash of a cloud. And since they are extensive and difficult to make, the materials being all hand-made, they ornament the one set they will wear until it drops away. . . as all things eventually do. So the hems and openings are dressed with multi-colored weavings. The collars proudly show the fleece that is the lining for the whole. If the outer layer is a finely-tanned sheep hide, it is embossed with designs from the Buddhist culture. It hangs and billows and can serve as sleeping gear if caught outside, as a pack for many things found along the trail, and it beautifully covers a woman’s toilet in a land where there are no trees and where the views go on for miles.
The long braids of the women are tasseled at the end in a pair of wide weavings that they hook into their sash in various ways depending on the occasion; in close for work, and let out for show. The hill country people wear light shoes, but the horsemen of the nomadic families wear boots that Arnold Swartzenegger would find cumbersome. They give the men a stone-like swagger, though maybe it is something that they eat, because the women have a powerful waddle too.
And the feast goes on. . .
Qinghai Lake, October 30, 2005
I have been in China only a month and it feels like four or five.
I spent last week in another atmosphere—that of teacher in a Tibetan high school out on the edge of China’s biggest lake, Qinghai Lake. It is, of course, a Chinese high school, but this one is a regional high school to serve the majority population there. (There are only two Chinese and a few Mongolian students.) Students from the nomad regions come here for 21 days of classes in a row and then travel home—some long distances—for seven. And on and on they learn. This has been a wonderful up-close look at the future of these people. And I have learned a lot about humanity from them and from their teachers.
Like all countries, China is having trouble allocating funds for its schools, so teachers and administrators are as creative as those in the States. This school is under great pressure as the way of life for thousands of people changes from traditional to something in line with the rest of the country. By 2007 the school population is going to jump from 420 to over 800. And as you have surmised it is a boarding school. They are raising funds from outside the country to build new dormitories. But the teachers have no place to stay, their salaries are inadequate to cover rental of rooms in town, AND there are not enough rooms to rent in town anyway. The school has no water in the building. Big privies have to handle the septic work. The only hot water is brought from the furnace building to the classrooms and dormitories in thermoses, which are signature of this country. (Every hotel room and restaurant stay begins with a thermos of boiled water.) And yet the cheer and development in the place is delightful.
The connection between the previous adventure in the high mountain villages and a week by a lake on the Tibetan Plateau (elevation at least 10,000 feet), where the shores are as flat as you can imagine, is that the man who does the development projects has a day job as an English teacher and he invited me . . . for as long as I wanted to go. Of the 400 hundred students, only one had ever seen a foreigner before; my arrival caused quite a stir among them. We spent the week regarding each other: they, to see if I walked and breathed like the human archetype they knew, and I, to feel their wonder at a world beyond theirs and to sense the purity of their souls which have seen so little of what shapes my/our world, a world that has been affecting them to a great degree for more than half a century, now.
There is no way to capture their behavior in words—I tried for a week and could only come up with the following: It is as if I were a barracuda gently lowered into the waters of a large school of prey fish. They instantly knew I was there and that I had “power beyond their conception.” They always had one eye out for me, and when seeing me approach, in the beginning, in a pack they instinctively made for the nearest escape route. They wanted to have a wall or one of their brethren between them and me, a situation that made for some very interesting body play among them. It was as if they were willing to sacrifice their friends for the protection. This scurrying was accompanied by wide, dark, darting eyes and considerable giggling (this is where the barracuda analogy falls apart.) At the same time they were drawn as if by some dark force to get close to me, like Sleeping Beauty was to the spindle in the tower. They wanted to be infected by something. This complicated the body dance that took them over—fear and wanting mixed together.
They would scoot sideways, and all ways, as I walked down the hall, and when safety was reached, or when I had passed by, they would peer out round doorways, over window ledges, and from behind their sacrificed friends, who stood usually bent double with a hand over their mouths or covering their faces.
I don’t know if I made it easier or harder for them by taking it with such good humor. I am sure that they had never seen a smiling barracuda, less one who winked, and said “Hi”. But gradually their response became one of being struck dumb and motionless, caught more wholly between the forces they could not control. Then, after I had been in many of their class rooms, I would hear them say ‘Hello’ just after I had passed, or from a great distance across the grounds, followed by howls of giggles at their developing power. I always tried to respond, but this may have made it harder for them. The role of the elder here is indeed as an icon, and the American habit of accessibility makes me truly foreign.
More interesting was the dynamic when the King of Fish became still. Several times I went over to watch the basketball or to sit somewhere in the little warmth that the sun at that altitude afforded. It was especially fun when I would speak with an older student, because the younger would flock, knowing that I would probably eat the fatter fish first. I would become surrounded by a group of bodies, everyone pushing close but not wanting to be in line for a direct gaze. I spoke to them only in English, because I was there to let them hear it from a native. The conversations were all very elementary, repetitive, telling them I was from America, and my age, and how many people in my family.
In the classroom, they were always happy to chant out loudly in a group, repeating every word I said at a half-shout. This is the method of learning in much of the Far East, where the tradition is oral, where paper has always been scarce, and where having the right reply is more highly-prized than thinking something through. But if called on directly the student’s voice would be reduced to a whisper. I recall times when even the brightest students would just fall apart, unable to speak.
Outside the building a large crew of Chinese, Muslim and Tibetan workman were constructing the new dormitories. They were equally shocked to see a white person but lacked the means to engage the foreigner. They stood and stared until I had passed.
By the end of the week, all realized that there would be no fatalities; even some of the workmen wood mumble or hoot ‘hello’ depending on whether I was looking at them or not. When I went to the privy, I was accompanied by some of the boys—who I know were feigning nature’s call—eager to learn what they could.
What I will always be touched by from this week is the purity of the hearts of these children. There is deep and genuine shyness that comes from knowing the world is bigger than they are (I’m groping for the words), and that they want to not take up more than their share of space in it. It is not a pouting or brooding shyness that once shed grows into arrogance, or even one that disappears. The glow that accompanies their tension is loaded with sweetness and I think that this quality matures into the dignity that is evident particularly in the women here—both Tibetan and Chinese. I have so far spent more time among the Tibetans, and their instinct for service is dominant and unparalleled. Trying to find the source for this, I surmise that, like all things, it must start when they are young.
Erenhot, on the Mongolian border: October 31, 2005
The language scenario: China is a country, not a culture. This week I have contacted my fourth major ethnic group, the Mongolians. Yes, Mongolia is a country with political boundaries. But the Mongolian people were not all included in that drawing of districts. Vast chunks of area of the country called China are home to people who learn Chinese as a second language. . . and the Chinese have been very forceful about making sure that all its citizens speak and read Chinese.
The whole northwest of the country and many other regions are inhabited by Chinese Muslims, whose build and characteristics are different from any of their neighbors, though they are also very Chinese. The Tibetans populated the whole west, southwest, and even central regions, and they too, are similar in appearance to the Chinese Asian, but are very different in each little detail of body, dress and manner.
The north central regions are a mix of all of these, with a great number of Mongolians spread out along the ranging province of Inner Mongolia.
And as you can tell, I am now on the move.
I came here knowing a functional amount of Tibetan, but—to distort Winston Churchill—the Tibetans are a nation divided by a common language. This is to say, that the written language is identical from the western borders of Tibetan Autonomous Region to Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai Provinces. However, due to the distances and obstacles of travel at least four different dialects came into being. Arriving in Xining, I was confronted with the Amdo dialect. I understood not a word. Not only is some of the vocabulary different, the way of producing the sounds is significantly altered. Imagine if in English every “i” became and “a”, if some “o’s” became “a” and some stayed “o”, if “u” became “ah”, which to my dull ears sounds like “a”, and if “e” became “i”. Then there are the consonants—that I will not go into, for fear of losing you as a friend.
What a project for me to communicate! But the written word was a big help; I could occasionally solve my needs through that, if I could remember the Tibetan spelling. Well, of course, all that is behind me now. Tibetan of any stripe is of no help. I am traveling east through Inner Mongolia having to use the few words and phrases I learned in my Chinese lessons a few weeks back. Now if the term broken English means anything to you, my Chinese is suffering from multiple injuries. But being an ESOL teacher has taught me some great mime skills. And sometimes a person takes pity on me and drags me around until I can point to enough of what I need to survive. It is a very interesting experience to be without language. Perhaps that is why I am so eager to write to you all.
Mongolian is devoid of the whole range of curling the tongue that Chinese use. I met two first quarter medical students yesterday in a market—or it would be more correct to say that they scooped me up, for their fascination and for my safety. (Everywhere I go in China people say, ‘take care of yourself. Be safe.’) Their English was some of the best I have heard, rudimentary, but with some vocabulary. Over tea they spoke, and we all discovered that the sounds are very much like English.
But I will not learn Mongolian, though I am headed to the Capital of Mongolia—the country—tonight on the evening train. I was pleased to learn that the Russian influence over the steppes have given the Mongolians two alphabets, Mongolian and Russian. And as I was originally planning to include Far Eastern Russia in my travels, I spent several weeks brushing up on that language before I left. (I studied it in high school for three years, so it was not a huge stretch.) Of course getting a hotel room may prove to be another matter. I am totally enjoying this linguistic play, though it is frustrating not being able to master any of the languages I encounter, and frustrating at times to be left with my impulses laying where they are generated. It is a child-like experience.
Which necessitates me having to rely on the kindness and perception of total strangers. (Don’t worry! It is easy to tell the ones who want to help from the ones who want to take, and my physical size and strange—to them—way of moving are a help in sorting folks out.) Anyway I seem to be collecting a nice group of people wherever I go, and being so conspicuous helps. I cannot walk down a street without many heads turning and holding a stare. I have found the best way to break the ices is to speak a few words with a smile. It let’s them know that they have nothing to fear.
Outer Mongolia, November 6, 2005
So, just as some of you feared, I have come into the grasp of the law. Yes, I have been in a police car securely in the grasp of a senior official of the department, lights, sirens—the works. I have lived on the edge in my own society for some five decades and never come this far. But now, one sweet, little innocent trip to China, and well. . .
In order to comply with the travel visa to China, I cannot stay longer than 30 days at a time, but I am permitted to re-enter and stay another thirty days. So putting two together with a similar number, I reasoned that I had to leave the country and then return. Korea doesn’t require a visa—just an American passport. (Probably a quid-pro-quo for all the fighter jets we give them.) But the flight to Korea is expensive. Mongolia, too, I discovered, does not require a visa (perhaps in hopes of receiving fighter jets). So, last week I boarded a train to their capital, Ulaanbaatar. And on the train shared a cabin berth with a pediatric surgeon. She couldn’t speak English, neither of us could speak Chinese, but she was fluent in Russian (as are many of the elite in Mongolia) and so we got along in that language, with a lot of gesturing on my part.
She lied about knowing a good hotel in her city. She had never been to one, so she ended up taking me home. And to show the extent of miscommunication, I understood her to say that her children were all gone to university, so I would not be inconveniencing anyone. But all four of them came home at the end of the day and I realized that I had kicked two of them out of their bedroom. Anyway, they were all so gracious and it was a great way to find out how Mongolians view the world…at least the highbrow slice of the population. The kids—three beautiful girls and a boy—are in law school, med school, language translation school and high school. Her husband is also a doctor but posted for the year in Poland. This is how many people live, following the opportunities that they can. My hostess, Erka, had just been at a Chinese clinic for a month’s treatment of high blood pressure. I was quite torn, when I realized this, which was after arriving at the home. Should I go to a hotel? But she would not hear of it, and I know she did not get the rest she needed when I was there.
Unlaanbaatar is a huge city in a valley among the hills of the Mongolian grassland/steppe. You are riding through the grass with the occasional yurt or yurt cluster, and then there you are in the middle of a roaring city of concrete with Russian-inspired communists buildings, (though they dumped communism in ’96.) These people need to learn about the fluid chaos of the Chinese (see an earlier dispatch.) Their driving is chaos without apology. I reason that for three thousand years the Chinese developed their means of getting along with vehicles, by jockeying with their rickshaws. So for them a car was just an increase on the order of 1(one). But the Mongolians have never had vehicles until just a few years ago. In fact probably not until 1997. And being on the street, in a vehicle or without, is a very dangerous proposition. They do not know how to drive, and of course, manners are slated to be developed some time in the future.
Their buildings constructed under the communists are of a very shoddy quality and the new ones going up are a bit frightening too. But theirs is now a free society and you can feel it in the air with the shops and the markets bustling. They are very happy to have the yoke gone. They do not like the Chinese and they say so. [I have a lot to say about this, with the minorities inside the country (of China) and the neighbors outside. It is a surreal situation. There is total occupation and domination and yet there is a relaxation with it too. One society is on top of another so completely that there is for the time being, no alternative. Time, however is long. And things always have a way of changing, don’t they?]
Anyway, the family discovered that I loved their national foods and so in preparation for the train ride to China, they cooked up a whole mess for me to carry. But it took longer than they thought and the time got late. Then it being Friday night, Erka’s brother stopped by, I thought to visit. But as I strapped on my bags, it was he who was going to drive me to the train. Two of the daughters/cooks wanted to come also. And when we saw the size of the car, we realized that we wouldn’t all fit. So The uncle/brother wandered off with his cell phone and in two minutes a shiny police car arrives and we piled in, I in the front seat the VIP—criminal. The uncle, it turns out, is the Supervisory Inspector for the police department of the capital. It must be that the memory of the police state is still embedded in the Mongolian psyche, because with lights and sirens in the air, cars pulled right and left and up onto the sidewalk. And when that failed we pulled up onto the sidewalk. The last half mile we drove the wrong way down a one-way street, cars disappearing as they could. At the station, all wanted to know who they dignitary was whose bag was carried by the chief inspector all the way to the train car and into the berth. The daughters hugged me like family and waved outside the train. And off I went into the night toward China.
So you can see what a detriment is it to not speak the language of the country you are visiting.
The Pa-Lease State
Tong Liao, November 11th, 2005
So it has been an amazing trip, as some of you acknowledge. And charmed both in ts concept and by the events that have occurred.
But our thread of life is fragile and any system or continuity can be easily damaged. My fragility is definitely in the language area. How we so rely on each other to communicate! I have survived with few bruises, because of the willingness of others to identify my helplessness, sometimes before a situation develops. And my luck has been amazing, too.
Yesterday I began my journal entry with “My good luck continues.” I had come in the night before on a train from as far east in Manchuria as I felt prudent to travel. . . to within ten miles of the North Korean border. There is a town on the border of the two nations, Tumen, and I was originally planning to include it in a loop up to my northern most point, a city named Harbin, where the Russian influence is still felt in the language and the buildings. (It is apparently one of the few places in China where pre-revolutionary buildings still exist.) But then, as always I listened to my gut. I have been running into more police and authority lately. I have already related two events—the county official and the ride in Mongolia—but since then, there have been a number of events. Please attend.
Outside every station, and hotel in China is a group of people whose job it is to capture you and to take you to the establishment who pays their salary—be it a restaurant, a taxi, a store, a tour or a hotel. Literally when I disembark and exit the station, I am surrounded by 6 to 12 men and women each motioning me in a direction of their choosing. I am not familiar with the term, but the guidebook I use, names these people ‘touts’. Arriving in Changchun at 11 PM coming back from Mongolia, I was accosted by a young woman, who came to me after I had waved off all the rest, which I am want to do. She walked backwards with an easy grace and spoke reasonable English to me. I was in search of a particular hotel, and she said that she was willing to show me there, but when I asked her if she was paid by the hotel for this, she said not; that actually she was hoping to take me to the hotel run by her family, set up recently in her family home. And so sweet was her honestly that I negotiated a room with her. Now let’s be truthful. It was not a great accommodation and it was over-priced for what it was, though clean and well-cared for. But again I got to see the inside of a slice of life in China, which is why I am here. The hard working lower-middle class. The neighborhood was a block from the station but very rough in terms of infrastructure. In America, I would walk quickly by such a place. But in China so many places are like this. They are home to good people whose government does not yet have the resources to enter on a clean-up level. And I pay attention to ALL the signs (for those of you whose imaginations tend to run wild about my cavalier approach to things.) The faces of her parents were extremely warm and I felt indeed like a family guest. IF I had seen something other I would have turned and gone.
Anyway, Liu Ying turned out to be a saving grace, helping me the next day to find the Bank of China, which I could not have done without her, and to buy a ticket toward the border region. (I am continually struck by the fact that the places I travel to have never been visited by those who help me even if they live reasonably close-by.) But, after our outing and before the bus left, I went to my room to rest and soon heard many voices in the office. I came out for another reason and found five officious men in plain clothes. As the only foreigner in Changchun in November and walking close to a Chinese girl, I attracted attention of the undercover police. The headman was grilling Liu Ying pretty closely, even though her parents were standing beside her. She turned upon my arrival and said with great composure, “No problem,” and went back to her discussions. Finally she turned to me and explained. They wanted to know what her situation was and what my situation was. They asked for all four of our IDs and even for my ticket, which we had just bought, to make sure that she was telling the truth. I was struck by her parents, who were also cool as cucumbers. Seeing them, I remained cool, because I knew my intentions were clear and I also know that nervous, barking dogs seem to get excited by fear in those around them. In such situations I have learned to curb my concerns until they become necessary. Reading the signs in Liu Ying’s house, this didn’t seem to be a big bust.
What the police were grousing about for fifteen minutes was that the family had opened a hotel and not paid for the permits and the taxes to do so. So unfortunately my arrival had triggered the law onto them. However, they left after Liu Ying said that they would pay the taxes soon. No paperwork in triplicate. In fact, the mother patted the headman on the shoulder reassuringly as he turned to go. Cool under fire is the way to survive here. But this episode got me thinking about the wisdom of my plans to go to the border. I am too conspicuous, I thought. And North Korea isn’t Virginia.
The next morning in the station in JiaoHe, I was sitting as I usually do as the object of many stares when a policeman came over. He was relaxed and so I relaxed too (see above). He started to speak, but then held an index finger up. I motioned the question “Should I get my bags and follow?” Unsure of his meaning as he turned to go, I sat back down, confident that if he wanted me to follow he would be back. He walked off, returning later with a little book of phonetic English. He opened the page to the word ‘problem’, and offered it as a question. I immediately softened further and looked up the word for tourist in my book and showed him my ticket. For the next 20 minutes he and I conducted a conversation using our two dictionaries and me using all of the little Chinese I have managed to gather. The unforgettable thing was his trying to differentiate the English word ‘police’ from ‘please’. He tried and tried but couldn’t hear or say them differently, which lead me to the title of this dispatch.
In advance of the arrival of my train, he ushered me to a special gate and got me way ahead of the crush of foot traffic that was to follow. Boarding a train here is a steeplechase with everyone carrying big bags. And so I traveled to Yanzi ten miles from the border (through land that is very much like Vermont.) Whioe waiting for my connecting train to Tumen I became aware of many soldiers in the station and fighter jets landing nearby every five minutes. I decided to scrap my plans, bought a ticket and waited for a return train later that day. Yet again I ran into authority. Looking for help to read my ticket in a throng of people stampeding to climb on the train—cars go to different locations—I chose a young soldier, who became my savior for a brutal trip in the hard-seat class, with bags and passengers too many for the train and more boarding at each stop. He found me a seat, perhaps he ordered it to be cleared, stood and then sat by me all the way back to JiaoHe. In that sea of gruffness, he was dignified lighthouse. (Incidentally, on that trip everyone on the train was checked by the the police who came by with hand-held computers and entered every ID number. All people willingly complied with their requests.) And my soldier even followed me off the train and took my picture under a lamppost. In this turn of events, I felt reassured that I had earned my good fate by listening to the gut.
So as I say the next day, my luck continued. Not knowing where in JiaoHe the bus station was, I was delighted to see some long-distance buses in front of the train station which was outside my hotel. And there standing by the first bus I came to was the driver who had taken me to JiaoHe two days before. Strange, I recognized him by the stains on his teeth. And so I was off to Changchun again at 6:30 AM. Normally it might have taken me most of the day to find a bus and buy a ticket.
And in Changchun I went back to see if Liu Ying was around, not in school, and—more luck—school wasn’t until 3 PM. Yes, she could help me buy a complicated ticket back out west to Xining, some 1500 miles across the northern desert. And she negotiated with her mother to cook for me, instead of having me go to a restaurant. Like all Chinese, she is very sharp in matters of business. If I am going to spend 20 yuan ($2.50) for food, it might as well be with her family. So I got to see how Chinese cook—they pulled a burner right onto the office floor and washed and cut over bowls for the purpose, all on their knees—and this is a working class neighborhood. And her family got my money. To mark the good cheer, I gave both women a pair of gloves, which I had purchased for friends in Xining. What goes around. . . And they escorted me to the bus and got me on it, which believe it or not, is a frightening experience by myself. All the names and numbers in Chinese characters, buses whipping in and out, people hollering at the top of their lungs.
And I sat next to Sun Xia Peng, who spoke a little English and again after a brutal bus ride of rough roads and horrible loud videos played on an overhead projector, he helped me get a hotel. And pointed me to the train station to buy a ticket for the next leg of my journey.
There my luck ended. . . I ran into the toughest time of my trip. Belligerent people clamored to push me aside fro the ticket window, and they cut ahead of others and reached over me while I was trying to be understood at the window (a Chinese custom). The ticket lady, waved me off with a barrage of Chinese. And so it took me three times through the line and little consultations with myself and my dictionary in between to buy a ticket for two days later. I think—but don’t know—that the train was full, and I just didn’t know enough about the trains and about Chinese to figure this out. After several hard days of travel in unbelievably crowded conditions, I was ready to kill. . . but then I remembered my Buddhist vows. . . and the Please State.
Xining, November 20th, 2005
My time here is coming to an end, but I have had (and will yet have) a few more adventures. Over the recent full moon I took a trip deep into the heart of the country where the nomads live—the land north of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), [which is a fraction of what the Tibetans call Tibet, all the lands occupied for centuries by speakers of Tibetan]. This land is the highest continuous inhabited stretch in the world and is known as the Tibetan Plateau.
My misconception was that a plateau is flat. But this land, which is mostly 5,000 meters (15,000 feet) or more above sea level, is dramatically varied. The pictures of sweeping green grasslands with occasional rounded hills and distances of a vast scale, are lovely, but much of the land that I saw was white, except where the wind has scoured the snow away. Winter arrived several days before I did. True, there were vast stretches of open land, even flat land, but more common were forbidding mountains of rock with the sparsest vegetation.
My destination was the town of Je Gu, in the Prefecture of Yushu, some three hundred miles south and west of the city of Xining, where I often return after my outings. This Je Gu has thrived for centuries as a market town for the nomadic Tibetan culture, on a main route linking Lhasa and China; today it remains mostly unchanged. I have seen and reported to you occasional glimpses of the people of this region, with whom I have crossed paths. They are a breed apart from even the tough Tibetans of the mountains of Hualong in whose homes I stayed and visited many weeks ago. Though they raise animals for livelihood like their eastern cousins, they have until recently eschewed homes, preferring—indeed requiring—tents so they can move with their herds following the grasses and the seasons.
Je Gu was a destination for several reasons. On the practical front, there is really no other place to stop until you get there, so vast is the open space. On the cultural (and research) front, this town offers a good glimpse into the historical and religious heart of much of this part of the world. Each day several buses travel to Je Gu from Xining, and since the trip takes some 20 hours, the traveler is obliged to sit or lie down through most of a night en route. I chose the latter—a sleeper bus—with my new Tibetan friend Sonam Dhundrup, the cousin of a sister of a friend in America. In addition to his good nature, his presence turned out to be of great importance on this trip; I was truly over my head here. (When one of my hosts learned of my intention to good to Je Gu alone, he arranged for this Sonam to go with me; being familiar with the area, he knew I would have a difficult time by myself. And Sonam, stepped forward as if it would be to his benefit to go. . . such is the nature of these people.)
Over my head because these people, the people from Kham, speak yet another dialect of Tibetan—called Kham-Ge (Kham-speak)—that even those from neighboring regions seem to find unintelligible. Being the native tongue of my Buddhist teacher, I have been dying to hear it for many years. And listening to his stories of both the religious and wild-cowboy culture of the area has for years left my imagination full of images of intrigue.
Over my head because among these people there are no English speakers; many indeed struggle on the margin of their own society because they are not versant in the language of the Chinese who came and in small numbers now sit as overlords of business and government.
Over my head because the view of what constitutes a good day in the lives of these people is a long way from my experience, even though I have lived in a sparsely populated and cold climate, building shelter with my hands and growing food.
That being said, there is much that links me as well; a love of land, of physical challenge, of a way of living in which the day’s activities are proscribed by the weather and by the cycle of seasons. And of course, we are linked by the pull of a certain approach to spirituality.
So at 4:30 on the afternoon of the full moon, Sonam and I boarded a bus set up with 34 sleeping places, twenty inches wide and five foot something long, big enough for most people in this part of the world (I soon realized, though, that for me it might not be a ‘sleeper’) and we set off into what quickly became night. We climbed for many hours and the temperature inside and outside dropped. The window to my left gave me a chance to see out until the frost from our breathing inside became thick, where after it cooled my body to an unpleasant point. There was not much to see, though, as we ascended into snow. The bus lumbered for hours over gravel roads and hammered the passengers. But many of them slept, wrapped in the thick comforters provided, waking only for the nature breaks which we men and (few) women took miles from nowhere every four or five hours and for the one stop for food at a roadside saloon of the roughest sort: small coal stove in the center, two light bulbs hanging from wires tacked to the plastic material that served as ceiling, walls brown from hands or hair, tables that crawled over the rough concrete floor as you leaned on them, a floor made grey with ages of dropped morsels and spilled bowls and with the saliva that the Chinese seem to spit in copious amounts, diners hunched over bowls of noodles slurping quickly.
We stopped twice more for more than an hour each, once in the dark, so that the driver could fix the heaters that hadn’t functioned for a moment since we left Xining. His attempts were fruitless, but he was valiant in the cold.
In the morning I discovered my first use for the bank card I purchased for the trip; it made a clever window scraper (cash is the only real medium in China). And I got to see the mountains, and then to see the vast open plateau; with its herds of yaks pawing through the snow for brown, dry stubble of grass; with its herdsmen in their chubas walking along with the animals, their only asset; with its low-slung yak hide tents and compounds—where there were any—made of walls of dried yak dung cakes, burning sweeter than the coal of the cities; with its broad rivers fed by countless streams moving over the frozen ground. We ascended through rounded hills, seductive even in that condition, which peaked at the glorious prayer flag pole structure where even in the cold, windows flew open and we all shouted “Ki Ki So So Lha Gyel Lo’. Then surprisingly as we descended, the back of these hills became rough mountains—as if we had been driving for hours along one mountain peak. Down, down past beautifully laid stone houses in treeless valleys and along a short stretch of the Yangtze River, 75 yards wide, running swift and cold at 12,000 feet. Then up a tributary and into Je Gu.
This is a Tibetan town, streets teeming at this time of year with the nomads who come with the animals that they cannot carry through the winter to liquefy their accounts, to turn yaks, goats and sheep into paper money. Thus paid, they linger for a few days or weeks in a world that is not theirs but on which they depend. And they spend that paper on food that is not meat, on hardware such as pots and buckles, and on motorcycle repairs—the new horse for those whose herds have served them well. And on clothes both for the country—the heavy kind that are good winter and summer, that can serve as bedding even in the deadly winter nights if they are caught out—and on clothes for the city; on the brocade chubas with embroidered sashes and gold worked hemlines, on fox fur hats with brocade tops (a favorite that flips up for style and down for snow and cold) and on high heeled boots that give the males a sexy gait, which they seem to know all about. The sidewalk is jammed with people making or renewing acquaintance; all the shops are bustling. A hot stop are the stores selling precious stones and gold, with which the women turn that paper into hard currency worn as necklaces, bracelets, earrings and headwear. In this aspect of wealth and style, every fashion statement has been explored and exploited. Sonam told me that the women wear and own the wealth of the family. In times of death and impermanence, it goes with them or to their daughters, not to the husbands or sons. Men have the right to marry into it, and the duty to earn it, but they don’t own it. If their wives predecease them, the men hope to live with a son who has married wealth. This is an interesting stabilizing factor of the society.
This early winter period is a teaser of gathering and strutting; the real festival happens in the dog days of summer where women display every kind of finery and the men perform every feat of skill and daring.
As has been true for this whole journey, my arrival was after the normal crush of foreigners. Yushu’s unusual configuration draws many white skinned people in the summer, but this November full moon I was the only white person. And it became clear to me that many of these nomads had never been to town when the whites were there. Seeing me through restaurant windows, several nomads walked in and stood by the table, eyeing me gravely to see if I were plant or animal. A wonderful part of this experience has been to come to be at ease with this. A hardy Nyingma monk who had come in from Dege, another holy town about 300 kilometers southeast, sat down to inquire about me. And later a wily looking Khampa brought his whole family in to investigate. There was something I liked about him right away; a warmth that was real. Khampas are taller than other Asian people and he bade me to stand up, which I did as if in greeting. But next thing I knew he took off his field chuba, a warn green canvas item and held it out for me. Having become accustomed to many kinds of begging lately, I presumed he wanted me to buy it. But he held open the arms for me to try it on. Not wanting to miss such a precious opportunity, off came my winter coat—yes you wear them inside here—and I donned his chuba. This one had a full separate fox fur lining, the whole thing must have weighed about twelve pounds. He had his arms around me tying up the sash and I thought briefly that my wallet and passport might find a new home. But he stepped back and I modeled his gear; the women in his clan giggled behind their hands. The only sad gesture was when his son hit me up for a yuan note, which I offered to keep the event smooth. What the father really wanted, though, was a picture of the Dalai Lama, which I did not have. China won’t let them in, or you in, if you carry one. But my nomad thought that perhaps I had come from India the back way. Turns out that Kham-Ge is much closer to the dialect I know, and we were able to share a few lines. He wrote his name in my book with studied attention, and invited me to his home a few hours away if I were ever back in the area, and I gave him one of my extra passport photos with which he seemed to be delighted.
The morning before we left, Sonam and I rose before the sun and rode to the mountain above the city to walk through and around the Sakya monastery, which looks down on the town and over the whole valley. It is largely rebuilt, and in fabulous style—elaborate temples, gold buddhas, floor to ceiling thangkas, Tibetan rugs on every seat, monks quarters with the raked back windows, none of which is for show—but the ruins of the old citadel walls stand in the background as a testament to the Cultural Revolution (which I think needs a new name at this point.) It was a cold morning with the full moon still in the sky, but the sun came up in the clear air, back-lighting every surface we came to. The man who normally takes on average two pictures a day blew half a roll.
Something had been calling me to go to Yushu for a month, and I found it that day.
Emie Shan and Beyond
Beijing, November 28th, 2005
Last Greetings from the Far East,
No trip over the edge would be complete without a missed connection.
Having accomplished much of what I came here to do by touring the northern lands of China, I boarded a plane for Chengdu, a city not far south on the map but the change in climate could not have been more dramatic. After two months of virtually clear weather, with temperatures gradually dropping, we flew into dense cloud cover and the threat of drizzle at any moment. Temperatures a relatively mild 50 or so. Green fields and hills. I got to see that greenery up close the next day on my excursion as, yes, a tourist. For the first time since arriving I headed for sights on everybody’s list: the giant Buddha at LeShan and the Holy Buddhist pilgrimage mountain of Emei Shan.
Leshan is some 75 miles south of Chengdu, past more endless farm fields meticulously bermed to hold the seasonal rains, all of them green, some with crops soon to come out, but more with a cover crop or rice sprouting up about 5 inches; and past brick houses with the distinctive curved roof rafters and tile coverings, delightful to behold in any light. The town of LeShan sits at the confluence of three rivers, which soon enough join the throbbing Yangtze, a characteristic that makes LeShan accessible to the sea some 900 miles or more to the east.
The water roars through a gravel bed in a shifting channel that has caused vessel calamities for centuries. In response some 1,000 years ago a particular monk decided that perhaps the presence of a statue of the Buddha carved into the hillside might ease the fates of the travelers and merchants. Apparently when the government withheld promised funds halfway through, he chose to blind himself. (Do things with government ever change?). And his ploy was successful, allowing his sons to complete with the work.
What we find today is a huge statue of the Buddha sitting in a niche cut into the red sandstone bank just above the river currents. It makes one feel like a Lilliputian to crawl around on the amazing winding stairways that have been carved into the cliff side for the tourist to inspect this marvel. Another bus led me through a dense mist to the nearby town of Emei. Clearly something lay beyond that was unusual, because the town was uplifted, wealthy and warm to the likes of me arriving close to sunset. I was pointed up the road and began my walk up the mountain with a brand new walking stick, which the guide book said was necessary for the trip down, though to that point I had seen nothing except flat land.
I had my wallet at the ready for some expected huge ticket booth to enter the mountain, but walked through the virtually deserted parking lot, without seeing signs of anyone. And still living my version of the World of Mr. Mum, I wandered on, trying to make sense of what I could. My destination was a nunnery called FuHu Si at the foot of the mountain, which I had read had accommodation. The road lifted and some thirty minutes later I arrived at a huge set of stairs looming out of the mist and above me the embossed eave tiles of the building, which was the outer gate. Again almost no one was present, but the size of the complex boasted of huge investments of time, money and inspiration. At the top of the steps was a large courtyard of carved granite slabs perfectly set and fit together, buildings all around with more stairs at the other end leading to another courtyard surrounded by more magnificent buildings and through them and up, yet another and another. Four complexes cut into the mountainside, with more complexes out on both flanks.
Under the gate which led to the second courtyard, I saw a sign in Chinglish—the catastrophe of Chinese translated directly into English with spelling and grammar the art of guesswork—in which one word was clearly an attempt at Accommodation. The office itself was empty, but I could hear a boisterous meeting taking place in an adjacent room, so settled down to wait. Several portly and diminutive nuns in drab olive colored robes passed by carrying the ubiquitous thermoses that China offers, taking boiled water back to their rooms. But they were not working for accommodations, nor apparently for hospitality either. My eyes fell on a small figure in the courtyard below me tending an iron candelabra above water filled urns some eight feet across—he was scraping the melted wax from a dozen red candles the size of torches and scooping out the congealed drippings from the water for recycling for the next day’s offerings. Because—I was to learn—these were one of the moneymakers for the temple. These and the incense sticks as thick as my finger thirty inches long in a sandbox-size cast iron box. The little figure was sized like the nuns, but moved like a man. Every so often he glanced in my direction.
Finally the meeting ended and a convivial nun motioned that she would get someone to help me and disappeared . . . for more than 30 minutes. The gong for dinner must have rung, because nuns came by with empty bowls and disappeared into the mist to the west, returning with full bowls. The little man below me said something in Chinese and motioned the eating posture of bowl close to lips and scooping something with chopsticks into his mouth. I shrugged my shoulders to let him know that I knew nothing of the ropes. Missing a meal was not a new experience for me; many times my ignorance has caused my normal rhythms to be disrupted. I relaxed; the traveler without a goal. . . and without a meal. There was feast for the eyes and for the imagination right where I was. I envisioned the thousands of workmen who had carved the stones and cut out the hillside, who had shaved smooth and round the huge cedar trees that made the red posts and the beams overhead, all supporting immense roofs of layered and painted rafters that make the swooping roof lines and which had held tons of tile in the air for centuries. And I imagined the thousands of nuns who had once lived here and imagined their patrons swarming in on celebration days.
At last, I knocked loudly on the glass, no to rouse someone within, but to rouse anyone. And from some recess of stone pathways an officious-looking nun appeared and filled out the standard residence form. She looked at my passport with the same scrutiny of a border patrol, checking the dates and my itinerary. She said matterñof-factly in Chinese ‘120 yuan’, at which I gulped, and didn’t reply, except to show my surprise. Then she quipped the numbers 80 and 60. I didn’t know what she was saying. Did she have different rooms for different fees? Finally I replied ’60.’ She said ‘fine’ and took my money. She was bargaining like all Chinese. (The first figure is usually at least twice what they want to get.) A tiny, tough service lady led me to my room. As we passed some of the nuns’ quarters, televisions played. ‘How interesting,’ I thought. The deck boards we walked on were several hundred years old, worn and inches thick, very satisfying underfoot. I ended up in an unheated room (it did have air-conditioning; most of their guests are summer residents) overlooking a stone courtyard with a stone and flower garden and countless roofs swooping above all disappearing into the dusk and mist.
In the morning I woke to the 5AM gongs and drums and dressed in the cool air, following the sounds to the main shrine room where there were three stunning gilded statues of the Buddha in various symbolic teaching postures. Some thirty nuns came together, all in their twenties and thirties, and chanted their practice to a series of gongs, drums and gourds. For an hour a tall male foreigner watched from the outer recesses, concealed a bit by the wooden pillars, trees thirty inches through that have stood for centuries and still have not checked so fine is their grain. Breakfast was Sichuan (read HOT) vegetables and white rice porridge with the constant—a steamed roll—a white ball of fluff, flour without salt. I pocketed an extra for the hiking and an hour later was on my way, having received instruction on the trail from the candle tender, who was out working early, because the crowds were beginning to come for the day; soon they would be making offerings of candles and incense.
It takes the average person several days to climb the mountain, and to visit its many monasteries, and every stair is a five-foot long granite stair or slab laid precisely. There are no loose edges; the numerous streams are bridged in the same way. No only that, some time ago any bank that threatened slippage or tumbling had been laid up with rock terraces and the trees in them were very old. The vegetation was tropical and thick, though the temperature was below fifty degrees. The weather was still misty, with occasional drizzle, only my second time of rain in the entire journey. In the beginning I was overtaken by parties of Chinese on outings to the mountain, who passed me by, talking loudly, overpowering the songs of the birds and the sounds of the water. I took my own advice to let their chatter be the mirror of the stillness around them, and when I did, the forest opened its magic to me. Soon my slow steady pace was too much for them, and I left them behind gasping for breath. The mountain was mine. And the mountain was steep. Behind those mists was the mountain that has inspired all of the Chinese scrolls of steep lush hillsides plunging into ravines with the people as tiny, insignificant figures. My heart soared.
The first leg brought me to Qingyin Ge, a tiny monastery and hotel perched over the confluence of two rapid mountain streams. I booked an unheated room on top of the falls and met a young Irishman on his way to Australia and had my first conversation in English in two months. I left my bags for the afternoon and walked farther still up the southern route through some unforgettable gorges, hundreds of feet high with the walls 15 feet apart, and still every step was on the perfectly laid granite. The work continues as it has for centuries, workmen lumbering uphill with granite slabs or loads of sand or concrete in baskets on their backs—in teams for solidarity—little men really, but tough as can be made. They appeared to be of a different race, I think, more Vietnamese or Cambodian mountain stock, darker and stockier than the Han Chinese. And then beyond where the day-trippers go, a little ledge above a falls and off the trail called to me. ‘Sit’, it said. So I did, and I had my first hour alone since arriving in China. Alone without someone right through a wall next door.
Having tasted the mountain and what I came for, I returned the next morning to Chengdu, bought a ticket to Xi’an to leave on the night train, and spent the afternoon writing to you (Yushu). I had enough time to take a shower in a guesthouse and repack before I indulged in a Chinese massage (research, always). Hey, for 15 yuan for an hour, how can you say no? Well, he said that my sore legs needed herbal ointment. And that my back needed scraping—a rough stripping on the muscles with a comb-shaped rock. How about cupping? I looked at my watch and tried to explain that I had a train to catch. Only 5 minutes more, he said. Fifteen cups soon were sucking the pain out of the muscles (and adding pain of their own.) When I was all done I owed 35 yuan, which is just over four dollars. (This gives me the right to renegotiate with my massage therapist in the states, don’t you think?)
But the time had slipped away. I needed to get something to eat and food for the train, and by the time I had my packs on, the city was dark, streets like streams of people. Rush hour.
And all the taxis were full. Now in the big cities it is too dangerous to walk out where the traffic is. Best to walk in the wide bike lanes which flank each roadway, but very few taxis get in there. In the dark I couldn’t be seen from the road. Finally a free one was in the bike lane, but no, he was off duty and I trudged on toward the station several miles distant, knowing that I could not make it on foot. Shrugging my shoulders saying this is part of the journey. Missing a train. The sight of a foreigner with a load like mine caused many looks among the commuting Chinese.
It is difficult to walk forwards and to see an empty taxi coming from behind, and more difficult to walk backwards and not stumble over any manner of stuff that the Chinese street offers. I laughed as it started to rain. My predicament was of my own making. Finally I glanced at the right moment and found an empty taxi. I showed him my ticket. No problem, he encouraged, and took off like a Mongolian police car.
I made the sleeper train and slept very well. . .
Now I write this to you from Beijing. I leave China tomorrow after two months of near perfect travel. Many things are left unsaid, many charms will be forgotten, but little images will flicker back . . . Like the three-wheeled bike I saw this afternoon, pedaled by a small, round woman in her last phase of life. She was headed into the wind and her load was so heavy that she couldn’t make the pedals go all the way around, so she did all the pumping with her left leg, back-pedaling every few seconds. She was passionate though the bike hardly moved. So touching, because sitting immobile behind her was a man, who was older still . . . Images like the desert grasses and fence lines burdened with the gossamer thin plastic bags that are used to carry everything here. They flutter in the constant breezes in a way so reminiscent of their Tibetan cousins—the flags that celebrate roof and mountaintops—that I came to call them ‘prayer bags’.
Instead of prayers they are flapping the message of commerce. That is the future of China, a huge market place, a dragon awakening to the power of money. It will be the dynamic force of change in the longest civilization on earth. And I predict that this force unleashed by the one-party system will be its undoing. The youth here are a different breed from any of the earlier generations. The other day on the train to Beijing, I had the pleasure to be surrounded by three twenty-somethings; a woman lawyer, an advertising guy and a woman teacher. They were sharp and warm and interested in the world. They were interested in making money, too. When I asked them what their religion was, (because we passed a temple and one of them expressed something about religion) the teacher said she was Buddhist, the ad man said he wasn’t anything. And the young woman lawyer said with passion and a hint of a smile, ‘I believe in me.’
Thank you for the pleasure of writing to you and for your replies. I look forward to our next phase.
Epilogue from China – Duoxi Village
Vermont, January 22, 2006
My last dispatch ended with the train ride to Beijing, but I never really did give you a proper goodbye and in particular a warm ‘Thank You’ for attending this trip with me. And I do so now. To sum up, a little list: 11 Planes… 51 Taxis… 35 Buses… 15 Trains …3 Ferries… 6 Vans …2 Jeeps…34,000 Miles. Total money spent—under $8,300; most of that was in the US and Canada. Not including airfare, the China portion came to $1,000 a month—for everything including the hotels, food, transportation and gifts for those who guided me. Our dollar goes a long way over there.
As for me, home a month, I am happy and settled in for the winter; I have picked up my writing where I left off last spring after realizing that I had to travel to all these places; and I spend part of every morning studying Tibetan. I also came home with a project. Early on I wrote you about my trip into a group of Tibetan villages at 10,000 feet above sea level, where the buildings were constructed solely of rammed earth (and sweat), where the sheep and the goats were run into the compound at night, where the beans from that day’s threshing covered the courtyard, drying in the sun, where the roads were cut straight out of the hills of clay and where the animals grazed to the tops of the mountains. What I had trouble conveying was how deeply affected I was by the simplicity and openness of the people (I also have to use the words ‘ernest and genuine’) and by the majestic landscape they inhabit. When we arrived at a village, they would stop whatever they were doing and come to meet with me and Lergiater, the 23-year-old man I identified as ‘L’ in that email. They immediately lit fires, poured tea, set to baking bread and offered what they had. I knew when I left them that I would return some day and would try to return their kindness.
Lerjiater was born in one of those five mud walled villages; his school was heated, if at all, with yak dung. When he was about ten, he had a vision that there would be no progress in his world unless the children had a proper education and he vowed, at that young age, to build a real school. Seeing his natural intelligence, his elders selected him to attend a larger and better school in the village down below (at 8,000 feet) and his achievement there got him recommended to attend the school run by an American saint named Kevin Stuart in Xining. There he learned fluent English and immediately upon graduation dedicated himself to development projects in his end of Hualong County. Please understand, the only government development projects there are roads, which allow Chinese to move into the major population centers, where they dominate business because of bias in the structure. In the villages there is nothing happening. In a mere three years Lerjaiter has completed about 11 of 14 projects in the cluster of five villages that I visited. As he promised the first project was the school in his home village. Now there are other schools. He has brought toilets to all the villages—‘toilets’ here means a private brick outhouse for each family—which cut down on disease. And there are irrigation and drinking water projects, too.
A little history: this land was first settled by individual nomads about 500 years ago, who followed their yak herds into the mountains. They lived there part-time in tents, but gradually built stable dwellings here and there to make it easier for the times they were there. A woman came, kids came—one family at a time, they settled down and stayed. Nowadays the villages consist of between 35 and 75 families. They are located in their historic settings, which has turned out to be unfortunate; they are high above the rivers which are their water source. These days for all the herds and people in permanent settlements, water is carried up the hills in containers on mules or yaks, a two hour round trip, three trips per day per family. This work is usually performed by the younger girls, which keeps them out of school. In the winters the trips are dangerous, because the slopes are very steep and covered in snow and ice.
Lerjiater’s efforts have funded water projects in four of the villages and he asked me if I would consider raising the funds for the last and largest village. I saw this village and inspected the other water ventures. This is a finite project; the budget is clear; the work force is at hand; the need is great; and the amount of money is not staggering. With an investment of $12,000, every home in the village will have water running to its own courtyard, created by ditches along the hillsides and large conduit piping across the canyons right to faucets outside the door. There is a clean water supply 3 miles uphill and the villagers will do the work themselves. Each family has also pledged to contribute money for materials. But the bulk must come from abroad. They are ready to begin June 10th and the project will be complete by September 15th. I have seen their work and am amazed by what they can do. When this project is finished, the daughters will be able to go to school or another person in the household will be able to be gainfully employed. And the pack animals will not be stressed or lost on icy trails. This is a graspable project and an unusual opportunity to do something constructive for others. I am not a fundraiser and I know I don’t have the ability to raise this money except through those of you who have traveled with me. (There is no other funding for this project.) My China travels email list has fifty-one people on it. I am offering $1,000 and I have approached 10 of the better-set people on this list with a letter and pictures, asking if they could consider making a significant contribution. If enough of them reply, then I am sure smaller gifts (of any size) from the rest of you will meet the goal. The project will not begin and no money will be sent unless it is fully funded. Every dollar goes to materials or to trucking them to the site. Lerjiater gets nothing for himself. I regret there is no tax-exempt status for donations, but the books will be open. This is a one-time and meaningful event to fulfill a rare situation. I wonder, can we do it?
I would love to hear your feedback on this—whatever it may be. I will keep you informed about how it goes. If you do not want to hear from me again on this, please say so. No offense will be taken. I merely hope that my writing from abroad has presented reason enough to enter the fray here.
Yours from the American East,
Author’s Note 2018
In the summer of 2006, the Duoxi Village project brought water into the homes of the 300 + villagers. They dug a six-feet deep, three-kilometer trench by hand and built two cisterns in a little over three weeks. This attests to their passion for their communal well-being. Their daughters now go to school.