Tuesday, October 18, 2011

beijing to san francisco

Coming home today. Sad to leave a dear friend in Beijing, excited for home. Don't we travel to get a little homesick?

Yesterday on our way home from the morning trip to the market, for peppers, bitter melon and a pomelo, WF had us follow a detour to a patch of dirt next to a worn apartment building. Not something you'd ever seek, unless you were the type. She directed me to a low bush with two white flowers, and told me to put my nose in it. I inhaled and, just for a moment, lost myself.

How was it? she asked. I said, Very nice. My vocabulary for expressing pleasure is very limited.

She said, You say everything is very nice. Doesn't it smell like your first love?

I'm going to bottle the memory of that flower and that exchange and bring it home to share with you.

a conversation in chinese

Between a semi-literate American learning to appreciate what she has (B), and an intelligent, curious Chinese yearning to experience what she doesn't (W):

W: I heard there is a law preventing people from camping on Wall Street, so the protesters have built cardboard houses to get around this law.

B: I don't know. That seems normal. The government can't stop that because of the freedom to give orations -

W: Speech. Freedom of speech.

B: - because of freedom of speech. It's very important to Americans. I've protested. Lots of people have. But police have other laws they can use to make it hard, like the camping law.

W: It's funny that even when protesting people follow the law so carefully. No camping, so the protesters don't camp. Freedom of speech, so the police must allow it. I'm impressed. In China, there are laws governing some aspects of life, but nobody follows them, and then there are no laws to govern what should be governed. You're not supposed to park on the street but everyone does anyway, and blocks traffic. You're supposed to be able to petition the government if you have a problem, but the government beats you up and throws you in the woods if you actually petition.

B: That seems [fumbling in dictionary] unpredictable.

W: There's a Confucian saying: 无所措手足. "Nowhere to put your hands or feet." He thought that if the laws weren't clear to people, or if the laws were not predictable, people would not know where to put their hands or feet. They don't know how to behave.

B: But the Chinese government is so powerful. Ferocious. If they wanted to stop people from parking their cars in the middle of the street, they could.

W: The Chinese government's number one goal is to maintain stability. Which means there are plenty of police to control what you're saying about the government, but none for enforcing parking.

B: I'm afraid to send emails to you about this because I don't know who is reading. Maybe we can create another language. So they can't read.

W: Chinese bloggers already do that. You know if you put on your blog "Communist Party," that blog will be taken down. So people write "GCD" [the pinyin acronym for Communist Party]. It's one way to get around it.

B: Do you think they monitor blogs?

W: Sure.

B: Yours?

W: Maybe.

B: There must be other people who aren't happy with this circumstance.

W: Of course.

B: So there's hope. You don't think it's possible to stay and change Chinese society?

W: Most people care about their finances, making money, not so much about human rights or changing society. China has been like this for thousands of years. I used to think it was possible to change but now I just want to immigrate.

B: Most people everywhere just care about making money. And what about the thing that happened in Tiananmen Square, with the students, in 1989? Did you learn about it?

W: Every year around June 4, security is tightened in Tiananmen Square. And I've read a few things about it on the Internet. And I've heard things. But it wasn't something we learned in school.

B: You don't know the famous photograph? The person, he was a student, in front of the thing that the army has, it's like a car, but it's huge and it rolls -

W: Tank?

B: Tank. You can't see the student's face. He's in front of four or five tanks. The tanks are lined up. The first tank goes right, the man goes left. Tank goes left, he goes right. He doesn't let them pass. They don't run him over because the international media was there. They were there because there was a conference with the government the same week. Everyone in the world was watching. You haven't seen the photo?

W: No.

B: The man represents freedom. To a lot of people.

W: It's the power of one person to stand up against an oppressive government. But I heard - didn't the tanks roll in anyway and kill a bunch of people?

B: Yes. Later that week.

W: What happened to the man?

B: The government didn't find him. There were lots of students behind him. He went into the group of students. I think they changed his clothes. They didn't find him.

W: America sounds like a very fair place.

B: I don't know if that's true. It has problems. Different problems from China. You can protest. And you can write what you want to write. And I suppose you know what the laws are and most people follow them.

W: I watched that movie "Twelve [Incomprehensible]."

B: Huh?

W: You know, people get in a room and talk about law.

B: What?

W: They help the judge come to a decision.

B: You watched "Twelve Angry Men"? Black and white movie, from the 1950s??

W: Yes. I was so moved. Americans really seem to care about how their decision affects another person's life.

B: It's an ideal. It's not reality. If it's real, if a juror doesn't like your face, they decide against you. Nothing stops that. People are people everywhere. There is prejudice in America. Are there juries in China?

W: No.

B: Would you like to serve on a jury?

W: I would love to.

Monday, October 17, 2011


I promise I have been thinking the deepest of thoughts regarding philosophy literature art society film and culture, but let me just tell you about diarrhea which, with the assistance of some mysterious Chinese meds picked up at a pharmacy where I all I said was "你好,我拉肚子了" ("Hello, I have diarrhea") and then got a pack of pills with a diagram of a large intestine pushed at me, turned into three nights and a day of constipation, which let's count was ten meals plus lots of idle snacking mostly consisting of colon-plugging processed white flour-based Uighur products since that seemed most innocuous except one meal of noodles cooked only with half a pound of extremely hot peppers (portending pain on exit), of which I was blissfully unaware until the morning of day four, when blinding cramps colonized me and I had to abandon all my luggage in the train waiting room telling the woman next to me "Look at it!" not knowing if "watch" means "keep watch" in Chinese as it does in English, and sprint to first the women's room downstairs (closed) then the men's room (open but crowded with men waiting for the stalls, doors flung open, watched men shitting and crouching and smoking, felt out of place as 16 year old boy/31 year old woman, had to leave) then the women's room upstairs and suddenly empty four days of offerings to the fecal finger of fate. Do you know what that looks like? Atlantis. Layers of cities, almost distinct but mingled at the edges, each layer in a more advanced stage of decrepitude. Hot peppers an apparent specialty of one of the civilizations. A pale archaeologist might step through in knee-high waders and say: Was it plague that disappeared the primitive people? Or, they crafted prized copper urns yet buried their dead in formless mounds. Or, art and learning flourished in the halls of the great library, until the flood. It was the formation of sedimentary rock, God forbid an animal mislodge and become fossilized in a globe of not quite amber for posterity to unearth, examine, wrinkle a sensitive nostril at. I felt faint. Tears in the eyes. For a moment almost said fuck it and just sat in the squat. Grasped bottom edge of door instead. Panting. All better. Twenty minutes later boarded a train for a 35-hour ride to Beijing.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

hipsters in xinjiang

Two hipsters on my train to Urumqi. Really jarring to see floppy greasy hairstyles, dirty torn t-shirts, those cloth surfer shoes worn without socks, and to smell the failure to wash. Except for the tattoos and the skin color they could have been the peasants on the train - that's what earth-working poor people in developing countries wear, not just healthy wealthy young people from America who want to look laissez-faire. Which I thought amusing. Who cares how you want to express your soul in America. But why maintain your vanities in a country that reads hipster as peasant? For each other?

One of the army men I chatted with this afternoon noted that there were two American young men in his cabin. He was appalled at how dirty they were. "Their toes were blackened with dirt," he said. Then he called them 邋遢, which I had to look up. Oxford's Chinese-English dictionary says: "slovenly."

I appreciated the opportunity to learn new vocabulary.

majority minority

I've been lucky to connect with new strangers almost every day I've been in China. Today on the train five army men mistook me for a sixteen year-old boy (so they later told me, when I confessed ovaries) and made me drink beer and eat sunflower seeds and talk politics and society for four hours. Yesterday on the train a man saw me reading an English book in the dining car and we talked politics and society for two hours. Day before that etc. etc.

People here talk to me like I'm one of them. By people here I mean Han Chinese people, the majority, the ethnicity one thinks about when one thinks "Chinese." And it's not a social position I've felt before. The majority. I'm not sure I like how it feels. Because I've been talking to Han Chinese people, who have been so generous and open-hearted and curious and warm to me - offers of food, assistance, companionship, advice; friendliness, helpfulness; questions and attentive listening; responses to all of my questions about Chinese politics and society etc. etc. -

But then in hour two of the conversations I start asking about Xinjiang. And Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in Xinjiang. The full name of which is the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. And the anti-Han riots, the suicide bombings, the beheadings, the push for a Uighur state. Or, on the other side, the discrimination, the assimilation, the military presence, the de facto perhaps also de jure segregation.

Both the army man and the dining car man, when I asked, dropped their voices to whispers and looked around them. We were traveling by train through Xinjiang, and many passengers were Uighur. Then the dining car man said, "They're a little stupid." The army man said, "They're undeveloped, incompetent people." A woman earlier in the week had said, "They'll never be like us. They don't eat pork. They don't speak the language. They have to leave work to pray five times a day. How can we be expected to hire somebody like that?"

I don't want to make the people I spoke to seem like villains, because the picture is much more complicated than that. How fearful or hateful would you be if people of your demographic were being killed in your city for being people of your demographic? The Western press doesn't know which is the worse boogeyman, the Islamic terrorist or the Chinese government, so reporting about Uighur separatism doesn't have quite the same sanctimoniousness that reporting about Tibet has. And the dining car man saw multiculturalism as the driver of development. He pointed out that Shanghai you can see American, European, African, Middle Eastern, Russian faces everywhere, and that China needed more of the same. He quoted Confucius: "三人行必有我师." In literal translation, "If three of us are walking together, at least one among you can be my teacher."  Meaning be humble, and accept that other people have things to teach you. But this is the man who also proposed that the only solutions to the Uighur problem are (1) let the Uighurs secede, which China will never do because of the natural resources in Xinjiang, or (2) assimilate the Uighurs completely so their culture disappears?

What I want to note is my discomfort with the us in the sentence "They'll never be like us."  I'm rediscovering on this trip what I love about China and Chinese culture - including the traditional, education-hungering, hierarchy-respecting aspects and the reduced expectation of privacy, which make possible the familiarity strangers assume when probing me - but paradoxically I do not like that it is so clearly defined. Three thousand years of tradition can sure ossify a society's understanding of how a member should look, behave and believe. And I don't want to be part of a majority culture that demands a minority assimilate or go away, and until they do feels entitled to treat them as second class. The in-group, conspiratorial tone feels too much like the conversations I imagine white people have in bars and living rooms in America when there are no people of color around: "If they're going to come here, why can't they learn our language [and stop eating chicken feet] . . ."

I recognize the historical inaccuracies interlarding my thoughts here. Is it fair to say Chinese culture is a monolith? My surname more or less means "barbarians at the gate," because once it swept in from the northwest, pillaging on horseback, but now it is China's president and it shakes hands with Barack Obama. I don't understand historical patterns of migration and cultural diversity in China well enough to say the first part of that last paragraph. The second part stands, though. I'm just not interested in being us to anybody's them.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

passages from between the acts

The story of Between the Acts is very simple – it observes 24 hours in the lives of a few people in the English countryside. The patrician, Bart Oliver, his widowed sister Lucy Swinton, his son Giles Oliver and Giles’ wife Isabella’s are hosting at their home in Pointz Hall a pageant for the village. It is June 1939 and the eve of World War II. Melba Cuddy-Keane, the critic who wrote the introduction, says the novel “turns on a fundamental incongruity, questioning the relation between everyday life in an English village and momentous events occurring simultaneously on the world’s stage. What does it mean, the novel asks, to hold a village festival when the country is on the brink of war?”

To be honest, this book was very difficult for me to understand. Maybe because the details of the plot are meant to be confusing, and secondary to the multiplicity of voices that Virginia Woolf so skillfully moves between. The book is itself a pageant, and the subject of this pageant is the pageant playing out at Pointz Hall. I felt a lot of sympathy for Isabella in this scene where she can’t comprehend what is happening on stage:
There was such a medley of things going on, what with the beldame’s deafness, the bawling of the youths, and the confusion of the plot that she could make nothing of it.
Did the plot matter? She shifted and looked over her right shoulder. The plot was only there to beget emotion. There were only two emotions: love, and hate. There was no need to puzzle out the plot. Perhaps Miss La Trobe meant that when she cut this knot in the center?

Don’t bother about the plot. The plot’s nothing.
But what was happening? The Prince had come.
The note to this portion of the text observes that Woolf wrote, in letters, “[a work of literature] is not form which you see, but emotion which you feel.” The critic adds, “The documentation of detail, in building up impressions, leads the reader to emotional understanding.” Which is to say Between the Acts is an impressionist work, the individual phrases may seem like meaningless blobs of paint but taken as a whole they give you a cathedral.

Still, so many things to admire in the writing, in the individual phrases. Watch how she moves from a poetic, obscurantist, omniscient voice to the point of view of a boy, here pulling up a flower and then being startled by Bart Oliver’s Afghan hound and the Bart himself, holding up a newspaper to make a beak:
The little boy had lagged and was grouting in the grass. Then the baby, Caro, thrust her fist out over the coverlet and the furry bear was jerked overboard. Amy had to stoop. George grubbed. The flower blazed between the angles of the roots. Membrane after membrane was torn. It blazed a soft yellow, a lambent light under a film of velvet; it filled the caverns behind the eyes with light. All that inner darkness became a hall, leaf smelling, earth smelling, of yellow light. And the tree was beyond the flower; the grass, the flower and the tree were entire. Down on his knees grubbing he held the flower complete. Then there was a roar and a hot breath and a stream of coarse grey hair rushed between him and the flower. Up he leapt, toppling in his fright, and saw coming towards him a terrible peaked eyeless monster moving on legs, brandishing arms.
The boy bawls, and then Woolf moves seamlessly, within the page, to Bart’s thoughts on the boy: “Old Oliver raised himself, his veins swollen, his cheeks flushed; he was angry. His little game with the paper hadn’t worked. The boy was a cry-baby. He nodded and sauntered on, smoothing out the crumpled paper and muttering, as he tried to find his line in the column, “A cry-baby—a cry-baby.”

Consider the opening description of the library in Pointz Hall:
A foolish, flattering lady, pausing on the threshold of what she once called “the heart of the house,” the threshold of the library, had once said: “Next to the kitchen, the library’s always the nicest room in the house.” Then she added, stepping across the threshold, “Books are the mirrors of the soul.”
In this case a tarnished, a spotted soul. For as the train took over three hours to reach this remote village in the very heart of England, no one ventured so long a journey without staving off possible mind-hunger, without buying a book on a bookstall. Thus the mirror that reflected the soul sublime, reflected also the soul bored. Nobody could pretend, as they looked at the shuffle of shilling shockers that week-enders had dropped, that the looking-glass always reflected the anguish of a Queen or the heroism of King Harry.
I hope someday to have the confidence to write with this omniscient, judgmental voice. What backbone. This passage opens a new section. No indication of who the “foolish, flattering lady” who made the statements about libraries is. Then Isabella enters the room and there’s still no clue as to who first remarked on the library but Isabella is complicated by her association with the statements:
“The library’s always the nicest room in the house,” she quoted, and ran her eyes along the books. “The mirror of the soul” books were. The Faerie Queen and Kinglake’s Crimea; Keats and the Kruetzer Sonata. There they were, reflecting. What? What remedy was there for her at her age—the age of the century, thirty-nine—in books? Book-shy she was, like the rest of her generation; and gun-shy, too. Yet as a person with a raging tooth runs her eye in a chemist shop over green bottles with gilt scrolls on them lest one of them may contain a cure, she considered: Keats and Shelley; Yeats and Donne. Or perhaps not a poem; a life. The life of Garibaldi. The life of Lord Palmerston. Or perhaps not a person’s life; a country’s. The Antiquities of Durham; The Proceedings of the Archeological Society of Nottingham. Or not a life at all, but science—Eddington, Darwin, James.
None of them stopped the toothache.
And here’s another quick dip into the voice of another character, this time Giles Oliver getting irritated with the idea of entertaining strangers with a pageant at this point in European history:
Giles nicked his chair into position with a jerk. Thus only could he show his irritation, his rage with old fogies who sat and looked at views over coffee and cream when the whole of Europe—over there—was bristling like . . . . He had no command of metaphor. Only the ineffective word “hedgehog” illustrated his vision of Europe, bristling with guns, poised with planes.
I am so much happier when I read creative writing.

taste of hoof

Janelle knocked on my door at 5pm to invite me to a quick bite with Michelle, Tai the Uighur man, and Patty, also a Uighur man. Tai wanted us to try a special Uighur dish. We walked around the corner of the hotel to a place that served what I had identified earlier as sheep lard heaped up with coiled sausages. Turns out it is not lard but lung, distended with a water and flour mix and then boiled or steamed in large cakes that only look like lard, white and soft and smooth. These cakes are cut into bite-sized pieces and submerged in a sheep-based broth and served with cuts of the sausage, which is the large intestine packed with rice and spices and very little meat. The sausage and the lung were innocuous enough – so much flour and rice that they didn’t taste like an animal product, just poor people’s protein-free nourishment – and they took on the unremarkable salty cilantro flavor of the broth. I nodded and mmmed and generally tried to seem like a gracious guest. Of course Tai would want us to like the special cuisine of his culture. But most disgusting was the sheep hoof I sampled. I was thinking that because I like chicken feet at dim sum I would find something redeeming about the sheep hoof too. But no. It was brought to us on a little dish covered in a plastic bag (to obviate the need for washing dishes, I think), the hoof and the first two joints above it, totaling about six inches of lower leg. It had been boiled until the bones disconnected and the skin and tendons sloughed off. There was no meat, just a few ounces of skin and connective tissue, so nothing for your teeth to take purchase on. The texture was first slimy and then gummy, so that everything stuck to your teeth. There were patches of black hair on parts of the hoof. I didn’t touch the hoof nail, didn’t feel the need to nibble on another beast’s keratin. It tasted so strongly of sheep meat, gamey and head-filling, except much more like armpit or crotch or something hot, sweaty, and inappropriate, perhaps because it was the closest part of the animal to the mud and shit and piss on the ground, or maybe just because the texture coated your teeth and mouth and throat and so the smell lingered after the swallow. I took a bite and decided I could take no more. I’m not usually squeamish, but I didn’t see why I should finish something that I felt so strongly negative about. I apologized profusely for my inability to finish and tried to make up for it by eating as much lung as I could take.

renming xi lu, kashgar

I have fallen in love with this young Uighur woman who is assiduously mopping the second floor of this restaurant. Her hair is tucked into a flopping blue toque and her brows are knotted in concentration. So few people have come into this space in the two hours I’ve been sitting here, yet she draws her mop over the tiles, around the stools, under the benches. She can’t be paid more than pennies an hour. An American R&B song on the speakers is playing my heart: “Can I get closer? Can I get closer?”

I’m sitting at the window on the second floor of an antiseptic fast food restaurant in Kashgar, typing on my laptop, headphones plugged in, looking out over the roundabout where Renming West Road, Youmulakexia Road, and Kezigeduwei Road meet. It’s dusk, meaning 8 p.m. in the far west of China. Pleasant, warm, low pollution, Thursday, October, 2011.

The roundabout itself is a baseball field-sized manicured lawn with a topiary panel in red and yellow flowers in the shape of China, with adjacent panels spelling out surely a patriotic slogan in commemoration of Chinese Independence Day. The surrounding buildings are six to ten stories, office buildings, shopping malls, hotels. The building one across from me has faded into a lusterless blue but has a grandiose cupola up top and a 20’ by 20’ LED screen playing flashy, silent advertisements.

A line of lime-and-white cabs had clogged up the road for a spell, but now the road is clear for grannies on mopeds, workers steering moto-tricycles with one hand and holding up cell phones with the other, a woman with her feet up on the stepthrough to avoid the spinning pedals on her electric bike, minibuses, SUVs, sedans, and pedestrians to go in all directions on the X-Y plain. Every second is fifteen narrowly-avoided traffic calamities. There is an underground walkway lined with shoe and bag vendors, but just as many people opt to walk deliberately, carefully, across the crowded street.

On the wide sidewalk, lined with parked cars and mopeds, are policemen on bicycles with flashing blue and red lights, a young man of not more than 25 indifferently rocking swaddling in his arms, a dromedary of a schoolboy hauling his humpbag and twirling his identity card on a lanyard, six soldiers in camouflage walking in formation carrying riot shields and batons, a young woman in a black shirt with a white shawl buttoned at the neck hooking two fingers through a shopping bag and tossing it over her right shoulder. A shaggy young man in green sneakers smoking a cigarette while thumbing his phone. A six year old telling a four year old to hurry with a push. Two men, carrying identical blenders. Bottle Blondie with a teal sweater. Black Volkswagen reversing skillfully into a parking spot. Man crumpling a cigarette box and dropping it to the sidewalk. Old people, young people, in between people with that splay-footed, pot-bellied, proud way of walking. Mother in high heels holding baby who holds a plastic bag full of dates. Middle-aged woman walking slowly between cars, tracing a circle, and then standing with hip cocked, weight on one foot, hands clasped behind her back. Most people move much faster.

Two youngish women are wearing uniforms: blue collared button ups, black jackets, black pants. I’m focusing on the taller, larger one, who wears her hair down to mid-back and walks with a heavy gait. I’m wondering if with shorn hair she would be read as a man for the indelicate movements of her body and the breadth of her back. I’m wondering if she reads novels in bed, late at night, hugging a pillow. I’m wondering if they’re going to catch the number 10 bus going east. I’m wondering how many times people watching life on a busy street have watched me and then wondered how many times other people watching life on a busy street have watched them.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

karakoram highway

You’re in Kashgar, and you might as well tour the Karakoram highway, the passage to Pakistan. Nine hours there and back to Karakul Lake in a minibus. From the barrenness of Kashgar up to a boulder field with a gray opaque river running through it, past rust-colored, steep, furrowed mountains, to a huge gray plateau at 9,000 feet elevation covered in a layer of clay and water and surrounded by mountains made of white sand, then up to a black mirror lake at 10,000' with views of snow blowing off the peaks of the 21,000' Kunlun mountains behind it. Is the promise of the brochures. Put on a scarf.

Two hundred kilometers out of Kashgar to the lake. A stop in Upal to collect naan, tea and pomegranates. Coming up the road you first see the red foothills – iron. Copper too, says the driver. And the mining tunnels and the machinery, not much but enough to have presence. Behind the hills a mirage of snow peaks, like a fata morgana. The other passengers scrutinize the sky and say I don’t see it, but there it is, up there, floating above the rust hills. Everybody yearns to get closer. But first, a checkpoint, a soldier firing a rifle toward the hills, papers fluttered in the air, papers stamped, a face and an American passport scrutinized. The bureaucracy maintains the lines that say where China ends and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Afghanstan, and India begin. Disembark, walk across a line, get back in the minibus, drive away.

The road winds. Brushes past overhanging rock walls. Ends suddenly, continues on gravel reroute. Five hundred workers died building it. They get a stone pillar marked with some words at the side of a road that is still at parts unpaved. The minibus pitches and yaws. It sweats up the hills. Everybody falls asleep or turns green. In the place of traffic cones, boulders are rolled into the street and painted with red and white stripes. An eighteen wheeler has plunged off the edge of a road. The crushed cab and cargo load is still there, a cautionary tale. The government or the driver’s family or whoever should be responsible does not have the wherewithal or the ambition to remove the wreck.

The minibus goes past boulders the size of refrigerators, trucks, houses. The houses are stacked up rocks mortared with pulverized rocks and water. Every few miles there are two such houses, and a goat, or a donkey, or a dozen sheep. The guide says more people live to be 100 in the mountains than they do anywhere else, but the long life is simple and lonesome. In the distance, the array of sixty red-roofed buildings? A settlement built for the mountain people. No word on whether it is occupied.

The other occupants – older, Chinese, friendly, protective – say: how old are you? Thirty-one? I would have guessed sixteen or seventeen. That’s a doll’s face. You look so young. America? I thought Chinese. That's a Chinese face, dollface. What do Americans think of China? What do Americans think of the depreciation of the U.S. dollar vis-à-vis the renmingbi? De-pre-ci-ation. You know, economic development? Development. Don’t you speak Chinese? What does it feel like to come from America to a country where every face is yellow? What kind of a bank does your mother work in? Does California have good beef noodle soup? Then why is there a fast food chain called "California Beef Noodle Soup" in China? Say “Michael Jackson” in English. What do you think of American education? Is it true that American children don’t have study habits? How could you not know what the Donghua cave paintings are? Can you see stars from the airplane if you fly at night? The men’s room is that direction. No - you’re a woman? I thought you were a man! Or, I couldn’t tell, and we guessed but – hmm! Really, I couldn’t tell!

Everybody smiles, it’s like you have four more parents, the curiosity and chatter never feels oppressive or probing, only familiar, and they invite you to dinner after the tour. They lean across your legs without asking to take photos. It's all very familiar.

The driver puts on the most inane and heteronormative music ever recorded that repeats for the next six hours of driving. Song #1, male lead: “Being a man is tiring / so tiring / everybody knows / woman is a rose / taking care of her tires me out / this is my punishment / my punishment.” Song #2, alternating male and female voices: “Pretty girl marry me, if you married somebody else I would so devastated / I’m a pretty girl, I’m going to be married / Pretty girl, marry me,” und so weider, ad infinitum, until the audience froths and reaches for the airsickness bag. Then the man who leaned over your legs leans over again and asks, “Hey, is that a male voice or a female voice?” It’s a high clear soprano, so you say, “A woman?” He says, “No! That’s a man! He’s very popular now.” That high flute of a falsetto makes you rethink every nasty thing you just spent the last hour thinking.

On the road, there are only mountains, boulders, rivers, pools of still water, and low, crushed grass. No trees. No explanations or only incomprehensible Chinese language explanations, so you are only left to imagine life on this section of connecting trade route to the Silk Road. The dirty ancients grubbing a passage over high, treacherous terrain. Bored, frostbitten prostitutes at the caravanserai fondling the unwashed parts of traders. How much measured in Hotan jade a strong central Asian steed traded for. Bandits descending from a furrow in the mountain to slaughter a merchant, steal a cargo of spices, break the axels. The watchful eyes of the mountain people, their lifetimes on horseback, in yurts, gnawing sheep. Mystics barefoot in caves. Talking monkeys. Flying carpets. No guide or curator or book cures these imaginations, so they just run on and on, like bandits descending from the mountain furrow, like central Asian steeds, like mining trucks undeterred by the red and white striped boulders on the road, for a moment flying free.

At the lake, you ride a horse in front of a Kyrgyz boy who slaps it into a gallop. You squeal and clutch at the saddle. The horse runs to the lake and dips suddenly, and you hear thhhup thhhup thhhup as it sucks up water. Karakul means “black,” but the wide, flat surface is today a robin’s egg blue that reflects a blurry striated double of the unfathomable peaks beyond it. You’re not there long and the structure of the adventure feels schlocky but the view is magic, and the imagination will last forever.

the things i carry

My money is distributed among my possessions. 500 RMB tucked into a flap in my journal, another 1500 RMB and a passport and an ATM card in the pouch I tuck into my waistband, pocket change and a California driver’s license and a Chinese ATM card that doesn’t work in the wallet I keep buttoned in the back of my chinos. This way something gets nabbed and I’m not stranded.

This is a travel habit I developed a long time ago. When I traveled in Nepal – for seven weeks, on assignment to rewrite the Kathmandu and eastern Nepal sections of a budget travel guide – I kept 200 rupees between the insole and sole of my left boot.

The monarchy had just collapsed. A few hours before I arrived, the prince massacred his family. With an assault rifle. Or a pistol. Because he was crazy, drunk, or in love with a woman. Any which way, the banks were closed at the airport. Most of the airport was closed. I tried to pay for my bus ride to Thamel with an American dime. There were noon curfews for the next three days. A guesthouse accepted my residency and fed me on the promise of future payment. When I finally got my hands on Nepali money, I stuffed some into my shoe.

The last ten days I was there, I rode buses an average of thirteen hours a day, moving between towns in a hurry to get the last of my itinerary researched: Ilam, Shivagunj, Biratnagar. Usually it was four or five hours on a bus in the morning, two hours investigating sleeping and eating and transport options at the first stop (“How much for a single room? A double? A dorm? What time do you open? Close? How much for dahl bhat? How many buses leave per day for Dakshinkali? How long does it take? How much? Danyabad, namaste.”), then another few hours on a bus to the next stop, where I’d eat and find a hotel for the night.

Sometimes I called my parents and savored every second we talked. Sometimes my editor called, sometimes to say, We lost a researcher, Peru, overnight bus, cliff, launched through the window. Reception was sometimes awful but what came through was enough to get the picture.

The longest bus ride was 19 hours. My strategy was to remain dehydrated and almost motionless on the bus so that I would not need to pee, and then chug a few liters of water at night, when I knew I had consistent access to a bathroom. For the most part it worked, except it failed on the longest ride, and I found myself frantic during a five minute pit stop, unable to locate a bathroom, desperately needing to pee. I ran around a corner and pulled down my pants in the weeds beside a building, sprayed my boots, and then ran back to the street to see my bus pulling away. I sprinted after it screaming. It stopped after a block.

So I kept money in my boot. Just enough to get a hotel room for a night and a bus ticket back to a place I could get help. I never had to use it, but it was reassuring to know it was there.

By then I had dumped most of my possessions except a slim shoulder bag in which I kept my necessities: (1) the 100 pages of copy I was to research and rewrite to send back to my editor and the scissors and gluesticks I used to prepare my edits (such were the primitive ways of 2001), (2) photocopied pages of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet for cross-reference, (3) my journal, (4) a pair of underwear rolled into a knot, (5) a toothbrush rolled into a bandana, (6) bug spray, (7) a golf pencil with four feet of duct tape wound around it, (8) a yard of 3mm rope, (9) hand sanitizer, (10) an umbrella, (11) a long-sleeved shirt, (12) a plastic water bottle crushed to the size of the water level within, (13) a cassette player, and bootleg tapes of the Rolling Stones, Everything But the Girl, and Massive Attack, and (14) a novel – probably Virginia Woolf also, as it was in Nepal that I learned to love reading her writing when traveling.

Other necessities I kept closer to my body. I wore extra-large convertible pants that happened to be on 90% discount at an outdoor outfitter store (the hem dragged under my heels; the waistband pleated when I drew my belt tight); a sports bra, and a bright yellow t-shirt with cat’s paw prints and English words across the chest. My right front pocket was for tissues, right rear was for a gaffer tape wallet containing only cash, left rear was for a small spiral bound notebook and mini pen which I used to sketch, record stray thoughts and document the items I spent money on each day. It was about $6 a day on food, travel and accommodations, slightly more if I bought batteries or novels – Nepal is a very poor country. I kept a debit card and cash and my passport in a waistband pouch. I also in the pouch was a slip of paper on which I had written my parents’ phone numbers, my passport number, and my own name. In addition to the shoulder bag, I had a handbag in which I kept an extra t-shirt, extra pairs of underwear and socks, flip-flops, three extra novels, and my Larium pills. I kept the second bag mostly to have something to leave on bus seats when I needed to designate a spot, since it was filled with worthless things and I would not be devastated if it were to be stolen or left behind.

I could pack light because I was not in the habit then of showering or changing my clothes. I washed myself fewer than ten times in the 51 days I was in Nepal, and was perfectly unable to understand why dirt and dead skin rolled up in little tapered lines when I drew a finger across my neck. Some of the people who knew me in those days still think I have this attitude toward personal hygiene, but it feels like a very long time ago.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

headache, diarrhea, impatience, kashgar

Arrived Kashi 11:48am. Spent 45 minutes roaming to and fro at the train station, trying to get to post office 100 yards away had to walk quarter mile around toll booth and back and then again to return to train station. Because there were police every ten yards forming a cordon. Is that normal? It felt scary, like the last moments of a regime or something. But what I do I know about what that feels like. Had to wait in line for train tickets back to Urumqi. Angry Uighur police officers said, “You didn’t hear what I said? Wait in line!” then pushed me. I was scared that something was going to go violent and I wouldn’t have control of it. Very glad to pick up my train ticket, get in a cab, and go to town. Didn’t understand lone boy furiously digging up sandpile. Severely dilapidated buildings with severely dilapidated pool tables out front. Found hotel. Room smelled like feet and/or diapers. Book day trip to Karakul Lake. I wonder if I’m going to get very sick tomorrow, with this headache tonight and the 0' to 10,000' back to 0' change in altitude tomorrow and the diarrhea. I'm leaving destinations in my toilet bowl. This morning: the Korean peninsula. Wonder if this is God's way of pointing me to the next adventure - like Carmen Sandiego! A clue via travelers' diarrhea about the next place once should go to get travelers' diarrhea. T.'s story about getting an icy IV in Xinjiang comes to mind. Thought about women, drunk yahoos, yobs. The police state. Police and PLA presence is a lot more demonstrative here. PLA walking around with assault rifles. When have assault rifles in the hands of a police force ever had effect? DC cops carried assault rifles into the Metro after 9/11. Why? So that they could kill off whoever the suicide bomber didn’t kill in a hail of bullets intended for the perp? Bought a bagel then ate a burger and an egg tart in a fast food joint and watched a father play with a child. Adults engage a lot more with kids here. Generally. And kids wear pants with a slot up the crotch so their naked asses are revealed, so they can piss and shit right on the street instead of having diapers. Which made me realize that the onesies I bought Wu Fei are the dumbest thing to bring ever. Wandered around old Uighur town. Into music store. I am going to buy an instrument before I leave, I know this, the pretty longnecked one with a snakeskin drumhead. Found my way back to bing guan. Paid for tour tomorrow. Wandered out again. Walked slowly. Past kids getting out of school. So much to think about. Traffic patterns – opporutnitistic, just go whenever there is a hole for you to pass through. Career through might be better word. Death within inches everywhere. Made me think about that fool of a journalist and his description of Indian traffic as “human ballet,” as if there was a dog ballet or donkey ballet or any other ballet that is not human. Why do I find the memory of that man so contemptible? His toothsome privilege, perhaps? His self-promotion? Then to Renming Gongyuan (old people doing drumming calisthenics), Dong Hu (pretty, empty, dusty pollution, old workers yelling at each other while trying to hang up big red lanterns along the promenade). Walked to bazaar. So much crap everywhere. Maze-like. Rows of stores. Negotiated for and bought backpack to look more like Chinese school boy. Walked back through old town. Felt like Nepal. Dust. Broken down everything. Men sitting in front of their crappy broken store fronts working over anvils, ding ding ding, making hinges and axe heads and tools. Kids playing in dust and trash heaps. Man with pickaxe picking down a brick wall. Bricks and scrap everywhere. This is why 20,000 people die when there are temblors. The houses are thousand year old messes of shit held together by fix-its and scrap lumber. Motos and cars zipping by, grazing me. Honk honk honk honk. Most of the time, I don’t get a second glance. Thank God. But sometimes I did get the face-chest-face glance. So much of my energy I realized is looking at other people to see how they will look at me. Piles of lumber, of wool. Behind the man with the lathe, a thousand cylindrical dowels waiting to be shaped into bedposts. Wool being fed into a machine to turn it into – thread? Four sheep skinned, hung by their legs, butcher hacking off pieces. Wasps flocking around candy/sugar seller. Carpets. Rows and rows of carpets. Plastic sacks of walnuts, almonds, peanuts, saffron, hot chilis, spices, dried persimmons, raisins, beans – everything. I’m afraid to buy anything lest I mistake a prayer rug for a table runner. Two dozen people squatting in the street next to vendors eating steaming bowls of something. Tried not to step on a man going down in underground pedestrian walkway. Food: a stack of lard and on top of that a coil of sausage. You point and he hacks off a piece. Lots of shao kao kebabs. Warm dead fish hanging over the edge of a plate, hacked off by the piece to be fried in front of you. Candied cakes of almonds and sesame seeds and walnuts topped with raisins. Appetizing-looking golden baked buns that I bought two of that turned out to be filled mostly with sheep fat. Disgusting after two bites, I fished out the lard with a finger and tried to eat the bun which was tasty, but still my mouth was waxed with mutton lard afterward and I felt queasy. I sucked yogurt through a straw also. Dinner was suoman again in a Uighur restaurant, but it came not as pulled noodles but more like fan-shaped pasta. Suoman is tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, some chopped green, peppers, pepper. Sort of pasta like actually, but the flavor is a bit saltier and spicier. I think mine had beef but then I came across a piece I chewed for a full minute before realizing it must have fallen off the rubber tree. I swallowed it. So many sights to behold and thoughts to process. Uighurs mostly. Not a lot of Chinese. Uighur men ogling a bosomy foolish Chinese girl with dyed blondish hair who rode on a camel next to the mosque and had photos of herself taken. Most women covered up – scarf halfway over hair – some with kerchiefs draped over their heads, some with more formal scarf with eye slit. Seems pointless when there are hussies wearing short skirts too, both Uighur and otherwise. Lots of kids eating popsicles. Why don’t kids wear helmets if China’s so fussy about only having one kid and everyone puts all their hopes on that one kid? Or maybe Uighurs are permitted to have as many as they want. Just had to stop typing for half hour to sit on the toilet and have diarrhea. Uhoh tomorrow’s not going to be a good day. Knew I should have stopped at CVS on the way to SFO and gotten anti-diarrheals. I can’t remember other images from today I wanted to remember. Weird shit. I felt like I was in Indiana Jones. I felt like I was finally where I wanted to be as an 8 year old captivated by adventure stories. Now I need a quest. I need something to happen. Poof.

urumqi to kashgar by train

The first five hundred kilometers of the journey from Urumqi to Kashgar took ten hours.

So said the man who shared my cabin on the train. He had the berth opposite mine, the mirror image of my wide padded bench, upholstered in a pink patterned fabric, with a coat hanger and a luggage rack fit for a child’s schoolbag at one end and a table at the other, near the window, that swung up on a hinge and bore an unhemmed tablecloth and a Thermos for our shared use. Small speakers were embedded in the corners of the cabin. These played a continuous stream of music, entertainment, announcements. I didn’t realize there was a way to opt out until I saw, in the thirteenth hour of the trip, the man opposite me turn a dial over his head that trebled the volume of an entertainment show in which every phrase the host uttered was followed by a cartoonish sound effect, the boinga-boinga of wolf eyes bulging, a slide whistle dropping a register, the ka-ching of a till closing a sale. We were also provided with pillows and blankets, and switches to control the overhead light and the ceiling fan.

The man said the landscape we traveled through did not permit travel at faster than 50 kilometers an hour because of the winding climb through the mountains between Turpan and Hejing. The train took us first in the wrong direction, east to Turpan, across the barren landscape I had crisscrossed earlier in the week, gray gravel stretching in every direction to the horizon. The sun must kill everything, for there was nothing on the ground except that gray gravel, and electrical poles running parallel to the train tracks a few hundred meters away, and occasionally a windfarm or an oil derrick and the trucks and gravel paths that serviced them. No tuft of green or side of flesh; energy harvested from the land could fuel life in a big city, far away, but could do nothing for life here. For long stretches there was not even topography to break up the monotony. Just gravel, gravel, gravel…

After Turpan, this moonscape went on another few hours. I alternated between reading the Virginia
Woolf novel I could barely understand, at a pace to match our unhurried passage through the mountains, also out of necessity rather than leisure, because I found the multiplicity of voices around the pageant at Pointz Hall so difficult to follow, especially over the stream of Chinese and Uighur babble from the cabin speakers; listening to electronic music; and sleeping. On occasion I would look out the window and find that nothing had changed. Once there was a gravel berm running alongside the tracks. Another time we passed hundreds of giant white whirligigs – I couldn’t fix an exact number because they faded into three-fingered apparitions as they approached the dusty horizon and then disappeared altogether. I stood in the throughway at the end of my car and did calisthenics – squats, lunges – while we passed them. Yet another time there was a fence that carried on for miles, but large sections of it lay flat against the ground. The Xinjiang sun is too passionate, too sideways, too wan, too something, maybe because its diffusion through the hot dust blown in the air or because of the decision of the Communist state to give the 4,000 mile breadth of China only one time zone, unremarkable for the big cities clustered in the east but one that gives the far western border a mid-autumn dawn at 8:30 a.m. and sunset at 9 p.m. The quality of light made me feel especially alienated; or heightened somehow; or I am just a traveler, and everything looks irregular to my eyes, even the plain vents on the ceiling and the plain booths in the dining car, and I can be trusted only to absorb sensations with my mouth slightly open but not to comprehend.

Around this time, I attracted the attention of the man opposite me by writing in my journal. I saw him looking. Then he leaned across his berth and scrutinized the words in my spiral-bound book. “What language is that?” he asked. “English,” I said. He looked at my face, puzzled. We had already gone through the niceties in Chinese: where are you going, what are you doing, what time does the train arrive, what kind of work do you do on the railroad, I’m a tourist, I’d like to learn about the relations between Uighurs and Han Chinese people in Kashgar, where is Aksu, how does one get to Karakul Lake, would you like to share my golden raisins? Hadn’t I had this conversation a dozen times since arriving in Urumqi? I said I was American.

It gives me pleasure to no end to be mistaken for a Chinese citizen. It’s what makes travel in China so unique for me. All this time I have fixated on passing as a man, I have forgotten to write about passing as Chinese. I blend in, and blending in lets me eavesdrop and participate in activities with locals and walk down the street unmolested by other people’s curiosity – luxuries an international traveler in China doesn’t always have. I look the part: my stature and broad shoulders aren’t as anomalous here as they are in the south or in Taiwan, where people are smaller, or perhaps I am just registered as an invisible teen boy. My unusual clothes are not that far out of the range of reason. I also sound the part: I am fluent enough, at least in the first ten minutes of conversations one has with strangers, and China is linguistically diverse enough that my accent is just understood as a Zhejiang flavor. It is until conversation goes deeper and my mind draws blanks that I have to confess my citizenship. Please explain, sir, what you mean by something something law in America, because my speech bears a blush of intelligence but my language comprehension is actually like Swiss cheese – no, like Swiss cheese which has been first melon-balled then jackhammered and then chopped to pieces and half the pieces thrown to the camels in the Xinjiang desert – and then after a comedy of circumlocution the open-mouthed party understands that the man opposite her is asking about employment law in America.

I had to show my passport to get into an Internet café a few days ago, which caused this conversation between me and the man and woman attending the cash register:
Woman: She’s American.
Man: You look Chinese.
Me: I’m a Chinese person born in America.
Man: What? When did you move there?
Me: I was born there. I’m a Chinese person born in America.
Man: So you have a green card?
Me: No. I’m a citizen. You’re holding my passport. I’m a Chinese person. I was born in America.
Woman: So you’re – half Chinese?
Me: No, my family is from Zhejiang. I’m all Chinese. But I’m American. Look at the passport.
Woman: Yeah, because you look all Chinese.
Man: When did you move back here?
Me: I never lived here so there’s nothing to move back to. I’m traveling. I’m Chinese. I’m American.

I had also called the woman “xiao jie” when trying to get her attention. She was ignoring me for the chat window open on her computer. I understand xiao jie to be a polite way to address a young woman, like “miss,” or “ma’am.” She looked up in shock. Later I learned that xiao jie means “prostitute” in Xinjiang.

Another conversation, with a woman selling me postage-prepaid postcards:
Me: Can these be sent to America?
Woman: I don’t know. Who do you know in America?
Me: I’m American.
Woman: Wah! You seem Chinese.
Me: I am Chinese. I’m an American-born Chinese. My old home is Zhejiang.
Woman: What’s America like?
Me: A lot like China.
Woman: Which is better, your country or China?
Me: Well, I’m Chinese, so China is my country too, isn’t it?
She beamed. I beamed. Then I paid probably three times what those postcards were worth and we went on our merry ways.

Handling other people’s cognitive dissonance is still fun and not yet tedious. People are so curious about America. Maybe it’s rare to probe an American traveler who looks and speaks Chinese and is willing and able to engage in long conversations about the difference between America and China. Once I opened the door with the man opposite me on the train, he had so many questions: What do Americans think of China? Do Americans drink hot water, like Chinese people, or do they prefer cold water? Is it true there are laws governing every aspect of life in America? How much does a car cost? A Toyota Yaris? A Jeep? How much is a bottle of water? A meal? How much does an average household need to earn to live comfortably? Isn’t law a difficult and prestigious profession? How old are you? Are you married? Do Americans like peanuts? Are there deserts in America? Can you see sights like these? We would sit in silence for hours – me preoccupied with Virginia Woolf, him listening to the radio program – and then he would reopen the conversation with a question starting “In America . . .”

Questions others have asked me: What is it like to study abroad in America? Do Americans consider having the number of children they want a human right? Do all Americans treat each other fairly? Are all taxi drivers in America black? In America, if a rich person runs over a poor person with their car, can they get away with it? Because in China they can.

And I ask in return: What do Chinese people think about America? What is the relationship between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang? Is it safe? Have the bombings kept Chinese tourists away? Do people speak putonghua in Kashgar? What do you think about not being able to get on certain websites? Do you trust the news? Do you trust your government? Do you read blogs? How do you say “bleak and infertile land” in Chinese? Is it lonely to live in the countryside? Are those camels being raised for eating or riding? What does camel meat taste like? What kind of work do you do? At what age do you retire? Does the government provide libraries, hospitals, and free primary schooling? How is your life going to change once your wife gives birth to you child? Are you afraid of the change? How does one get a bus to Karakul Lake? And would you like to share my golden raisins?

He did. The man opposite me gave me yogurt and I gave him golden raisins and roasted peanuts. The later left a circumference of husks fluttering around the trash bin.

Before we reached Hejing, that landscape started to rise. Life, too – a ten-foot wide river wound near the tracks for miles, and alongside there were stands of birch and elm trees, very small settlements, land that had been furrowed, the occasional boy on a motorcycle – but the view was still mostly monochromatic, as the land was brown-yellow and the leaves on the trees had turned yellow for the season. The homesteads ran right up to the base of black granite mountains that rose hundreds of feet steeply, all rock, no growth, mountain after mountain overlapping into a range. We went through tunnels that plunged us into darkness for five minutes at a time; I knew because I would set Between the Acts down and do timed plank exercises in the dark, on my padded plank, while waiting for my reading light to return. Just before Kurla, it began to snow.

My preoccupations were few but they felt rich. I read my book and underlined passages I thought skillful. I wrote in my journal. I turned from side to side when lying in one position too long felt hot. I listened to electronic music, because I needed ambient noise to drown out the cackling hosts of the radio programs, or because it was easy to fall asleep to the repetitiveness of the music, or because it reminded me of a very late night I spent with an architect very far away. Ooonce ooonce ooonce goes the music: then I doze. I looked out the window. I did squats in the throughway, totaling four hundred over the course of the day. I wandered up and down the cars and noted where people were playing cards, where men stood to smoke, where the Uighur boys entertained themselves making faces at me and clomping around in their mother’s high heels. What if there had been hard sleeper tickets left instead of only soft sleepers? I imagined how I would cope penned in six bunks to a six by six foot space, with another person’s legs dangling in my face the entire night.

Then there was the bathroom. I had had a delicious but ultimately regretful honeydew melon the night before my trip. My bowels liquefied instantly – not exaggerating, the moment I swallowed my first bite, noises like muffled fireworks started to sound from my abdomen. So I spent some time on the train in the closet squat toilet. I had a regimen: button wallet into back right pocket to prevent disastrous loss of important documentation and ATM cards to the hole that emptied directly on the tracks; stuff tissues into front pocket, soap into back left pocket; change from slippers into hiking boots for courage and protection; trundle to end of car; wait in line; close and lock door behind me; square stance over squat, pull down pants; clutch sides of closet; attempt not to piss into my pants or onto my shoes; attempt not to touch shit-encrusted scrub brush hanging inches from my face; empty bowel explosion; attempt not to press my own fingers against my own dirty asshole while using palimpsestic facial tissues to wipe debris from bowel explosion; exit closet; wash hands in the washroom; return to cabin, remove hiking boots, and eat Uighur bread and peanuts with my hands. Looking forward to killing the parasites that are surely eating my insides with toxic Western medicine as soon as I return. Strangely, despite all of the wet surfaces, the squat toilet smelled very strongly of artificial oranges.

The man opposite me left at six this morning at Akesu. I never learned his name. A dour woman came to take his place. I have not offered her golden raisins.

Then we were in another sort of desert – not gray gravel anymore, but tan sand dotted with bunches of scrub. Long, low, flat, all sand to the horizon.

At 8, I ate a meal of rice porridge, mixed pickled greens and peanuts, and a hardboiled egg in the dining car. The man who handed me my meal through a slot in the kitchen wall did not look Chinese – he had the pale skin, dark hair, and big, coarse features of a central Asian race. He peered at me through the slot and said, “Take your meal, champ.” Today I’m wearing a sports bra, and I’m glad the squat toilets are unisex because I wouldn’t know which to choose. I would say breakfast was disappointing, but I never had expectations that it would be anything but watery slop with cold amuse bouches. I only went because I was brainwashed by the morning broadcast, a minute-long loop extolling the health benefits of eating breakfast (preventing headaches, feeling energetic, tasting delicious rice porridge pickled vegs eggs) that reminded me of the busybody public service exhortations that feel so typically Chinese, like my cab driver in Urumqi telling me that travel alone was boring and pointless and I would killed by a bus and nobody would know, so why didn’t I find a friend or a partner to travel with?

We are now at the penultimate station. The ticket taker came by with the news. There are structures and cornfields. We must be nearing Kashgar.

tian chi (heaven lake) by tour bus

In the morning, I woke in darkness at 7:30 a.m. and did core exercises lackadaisically on the bed while reading the introduction to Between the Acts. I’m glad I took the time to read the criticism first, for context, because I am scared of being too stupid to understand Virginia Woolf’s later works. At 8:50, I went to wait for the bus tour to Tian Chi. On the way to the bus I ate a half dozen pork baozi and two hardboiled eggs and their shells (peeling problems) and bought a half pound of mac nuts for munching on the road. The mac nuts helped me befriend the woman sitting next to me, a retiree from Jiangsu visiting her son for the week. She was my companion for the rest of the day. We chatted about blah blah blah – tourism in Xinjiang, the prices of things, how rude Uighurs are to Han people in Kashgar, all the things Chinese people on tour can talk about. None of her comments betrayed any particular assumption about my gender, though she must have heard the tour guide call out my Chinese name. It’s an outdated, unmistakably feminine name. Perhaps an equivalent name in English would be Victoria, or Betty Lou, or Esmerelda. Then she referred to me later as a xian sheng. Mister. Very confusing. [Mosquitoes are biting every inch of my face - Internet cafes aghhhhhhhh what I won't do to serenade you by blog]

On the hour and a half drive there, our tour guide stood at the front of the bus, facing the passengers, and spoke into the microphone a mile a minute. I would barely have understood her even if she had spoken slowly, but with their speed her words were unable to make more than a gentle water lily's impression in the dark pond of my brain. I caught a couple of declarations – about the color of Uighur mens’ hats, and how traveling in Xinjiang for Han Chinese people was as good as traveling overseas, because one could see blue eyed and light haired people within one’s own borders. At a rest stop, the tour guide began collecting money from passengers for some huodong or another, and I learned that my Chinese understanding had failed to locate the key points in the tour guide’s speech. I handed over my money not knowing what it was for.

It was a day of partial understanding. The confusion deepened after we entered the Tian Chi park, which, like many national parks in America, was enormous and required a vehicle to see in full. The land turned from Xinjiang bleak into a mountain range with steep slopes covered in golden dust and stands of pines, with vertical granite outcroppings every quarter mile or so. Behind these slopes were mountains that must have inspired mystics, 16,000 foot peaks with snow blowing off at the top. Again the strange quality of Xinjiang sunlight made this landscape feel coiled with potential. We got up to six thousand feet or so. Our bus driver honked to scatter mountain goats that had wandered onto the street.

All this time our tour guide prattled on. So familiar – the busload of obedient tourists nodding along to the words of a knowledgeable Chinese guide. Sometimes I think these guides contemptible, snake-oil salesmen – so much of the industry depends on the tour guide pushing customers to buy shit from the vendors they force us to patronize – but often the contempt will soften into gratitude and eventually feelings of affection and then desperate hunger for parental validation. I couldn’t have figured out the logistics to visit Tian Chi on my own, and I worried most of the day that my tour would leave me behind and strand me in the alpine hinterland, so our guide started to represent salvation for me. The tour made me wonder how I could communicate this experience, understand as I do, not totally as an outsider but not as an insider either, with affectionate contempt. It’s very Chinese. Do I want my children to have this experience, even though I was so bored with the form as a child myself, simply because I want to transmit this aspect of my culture?

Our first stop was billed as a geography and cultural center. The tour guide led us into a windowless classroom that was empty except for forty seats, a mural-sized photo of Tian Chi, four or five glass jars of herbs, roots, and mushrooms, and a big chart depicting all of the energy flow spots on the hand, with little illustrated organs superimposed showing which parts of the hand corresponded with the liver, spine, heart, etc. A broad woman in a white lab coat entered and spoke slowly about the importance of Chinese medicine and the herbs found on the mountain. She said that today, and today only, they were offering free consultations with a Chinese doctor: there are only four spots left; who would like to take them? Four people from my tour immediately leapt to the door. The woman in the white lab coat peered through the curtain blocking the door, and said, Now there are four more spots! Who would like those? Another four leapt up. I waited until everybody had leapt up and left for their consultations before snapping a discreet photograph of the hand-energy chart, and then wandered around the next hall, where there were dozens of bored sales people ready to offer plants as medicine to whatever fool was willing to buy. I left. Outside, I attempted to bargain for drinking game dice (the faces said things like “Drink two glasses!” in Chinese) with a hawker, but he refused to budge and I refused to buy.

The next stop was a yurt. Kazakh. Dancers. Tried on traditional clothes. Ate some of their extremely stale food. The dancers seemed to hate us. The tour guide told us to go pee in the woods. She said wait by the apple seller. Nobody was buying apples.

Then we went to the temple and climbed the 300 steps to eternal health. I thought the man who led us through the temple was so serious and knowledgeable. He spoke like my imagination of a Shaolin monk trainee. He told us how to respect the space and what the bagua meant. He gave us silk scarves to wear while in the temple. We learned how to bow. Right thumb clasped in left hand. Saw the white tiger, blue dragon statues; human forms with the animal form embedded in the forehead. I was very curious. People bowing three times holding up bedroll-sized incense sticks. I wanted to hold the weight. I wanted to ring the refrigerator-sized bell. But then he led us to more snake oil! First a room where today, and today only! (again! Today is the greatest day I've ever known!) there was some sort of a man in Tang Song Ming or some very old dynasty monk getup who asked us our birth years, said some words about our horoscopes that I didn’t comprehend, sprinkled our palms with water with a brush made of drooping leaves, whipped a horsetail flog over our heads (it touched my hair) and then directed us to stalls with wise men. We were to bring a question in our hearts to these wise men. I thought very seriously about it and my question was a variation of the question I asked A.'s tarot cards; today’s question was “Will I become the person I know I am capable of being?” The answer is obviously yes, don't need a yahoo in a monk suit to tell me this. We were instructed not to say hello, goodbye, or thank you, only to utter some mystical words that I only caught a few phonemes of. It all felt so convincingly ritualistic I wasn’t aware even then that they were running a scam. My wise man asked my birth date, month, and year, and wrote these three numbers on a piece of paper, then wrote “300 600 900” underneath. As instructed, I said “Wooloomooloo!” instead of hello. He kept saying things to me I didn’t understand at all in a very, very serious tone of voice, as he was telling my fortune, and then asking me, at the end of each very serious incomprehensible phrase, “Do you understand?” And I’d say: “Yes.” Then, “Wooloomooloo!” After four such exchanges I started to think the situation so ridiculous – him saying very life-changing things and me not comprehending a word but nodding yes, yes I understand, wooloomooloo – that I started to giggle, then tried to twist my face into a grimace of seriousness rather than a wide toothy grin, which only made “ssss ssss ssss” sounds come from my mouth, which made me feel even more ridiculous. I could not stop giggling until the man asked if I was ready to pay. Having not understood anything, I didn’t know what I was to pay for, so with great embarrassment, I took out my wallet and dropped a ten yuan bill in to the slot marked for donations. The wise man’s eyes bulged out at me and he underlined the numbers he had written under my birthday: “300 600 900.” I understood then that I had three levels of sooth to be said, and what I would get would correspond with the amount of yuan I was willing to part with to hear it. I backed away with my palms held up and said, “No!! Don’t want!!” and left the room. I heard the man spitting on the ground after I left.

Then I wandered around Tian Chi. We were free of the tour guide for an hour. That was nice. Pretty. Then foolish Brian compared it unfavorably to the Sierras. Back on the bus, more chatting with the retiree, fatigue, hotel, street food ordered in travel-special style (“What do want?” “Whatever that is [pointing]” “We don’t serve that anymore” “Okay that [pointing]” “Do you want it cooked with blingee blongee or bloop blap?” “[not comprehending] Sure,” bowl of surprise placed before me ten minutes later, 10 kuai goodbye), disgusting Internet café.

turpan to urumqi by bus

After the tour, I walked the half mile from Tulufan Bing Guan to the bus station and bought the next ticket out of Turpan. In the crush of people, bags, and onlookers in the parking lot, I boarded the wrong bus and was shouted off by the rightful ticket holder a few minutes later. I took a few minutes outside that bus to repack my bags but it was tricky trying not to let anything touch the ground, the many darkened circles indicating dried phlegm or worse. There were also potholes full of opaque gray liquid; anyway, not a ground upon which to put anything. (There’s also a mysterious spot of something greasy and brown on the hem of my pants. It appeared after I exited a particularly disgusting squat toilet heaped up in shit. I’ve declined to investigate the stain further.) I bought my consolidated bags on board, as well as a plastic bag of food I acquired for the three and a half hour trip: (1) two hubcaps of Uighur bread, which I realized would be better described as pizza crusts; (2) two tea eggs; (3) remainders of my sweet crackers; (4) raisins and grapes; (5) a prepackaged cooked hot dog which turned out to be the texture of tofu and tasted exactly like something that will lead to colorectal cancer should taste. I took a bite of the last and spit it out immediately.

The bus was at least twenty, maybe thirty years old. The seat covers said “BMW,” but upside down. Everything smelled like old sweat. It was in the upholstery. The vents did not work. Somebody had inexpertly cut a hole in the wall behind the driver to thread the power cord of a television through. I sat next to a pretty Uighur woman who partially covered her hair in a scarf and spent at least half of the ride grinning at text messages on her cell phone. She battled with the Uighur woman sitting in front of her for the square of curtain that could block the harsh sunlight from one, but not both, of their seats. Most of the people on board - I don’t know if they were Uighur or Kyrgyz or Kazakh, but they were not Han Chinese. The oldest men had long white beards with no mustaches; the middle-aged men had dark mustaches but no beards; the youngest men had neither or just scruff. Many of them wore oversized cheap coats cut like blazers, worn button down shirts, worn nylon trousers, worn shoes, and puffy berets or crocheted white skull caps or green tufted caps that look like mini pillows. Their features were central Asian: round eyes, large noses, broad hale bodies. They brought all sorts of oversized cargo stuffed into unsuitable packages held together with twine. The plastic plaid bag that zips into a overstuffed rectangle that is so favored by poor people in developing countries – Laura liked to call this “circus nightmare bags,” for its coloration – were popular here, too. We piled everything haphazardly under the bus. A woman brought a cubic meter of raw wool or cotton in large paper bags and put them on top of my bag. A Leonardo DiCaprio movie badly dubbed into a language I can’t understand played overhead, except something was wrong with the DVD so that each syllable stretched out into five seconds of very loud metallic reverberations. I put my headphones in and fell asleep to trance music.

We drove across a landscape that was the bleakest I’ve ever seen. Even Rekjavik outside the airport and Utah between Nevada and Saint George were not like this. The hardened lava of Kilauea Iki has more life than the Turpan Basin. It was gray desert in all directions to the horizon. Not even grass or scrub or sand – just gray gravel. There was not even topography for the first 50-100 kilometers. I was puzzled to see, among this, a few people bent over what seemed to be acres of bright red carpeting. We passed by a few such scenes before I realized they were tending to hot peppers that had been laid out to dry in the desert. After a while, rocky hills rose alongside the highway, then bunchgrass, then stands of birch trees, construction zones, and then the smoggy metropolis was in sight. I kept falling asleep and waking with my chin snapping down against my chest. We arrived at the bus station in Urumqi at rush hour, and I was unable to find a cabbie willing to drive me to the train station, so I stopped in a Uighur restaurant, pointed at a random photograph on the menu, and ate a meal of wet noodles with a cup of yogurt and a pot of tea.

Even forty five minutes later it was difficult to find a cab, so I followed a man into an unmarked vehicle and bargained for a 20 yuan fare – still twice what I would have paid in a regular cab. I sat in this car for twenty minutes while the driver roamed the bus station looking for other riders. He found none, then he beckoned for me to switch into another car. I followed. We left. The driver hollered at me when we neared the train station to get out in a hurry so that the police would not see the rider and the unlicensed taxi. I whined (“Hao la!”) and left. Then I had a panic when I thought my ATM card had stopped working, but I recovered, bought train tickets, spent an hour in an filthy Internet café (glowing, snoring, sweating late adolescents; piss-smelling, also in the upholstery, the smell faded when I switched chairs), then followed a tout to a dirty hovel of a hotel next to the train station (peeling paint, single flickering fluorescent, ancient dirty furniture, stains, paper thin walls, paper thin doors, neighbors arguing over the sound of a television, toilet without a handle for flushing, sticky wet bathroom floor, cigarette butts extinguished in a tray of black liquid), and spent the night trying not to touch the surfaces in my room.

The tout instructed me not to divulge that I was an American, lest I be charged twice the rate for my hotel room. He spoke on my behalf and grabbed the key out of the attendant’s hand once it was offered. He followed me into my room and did not seem to want to leave. He asked, twice, “Are you a man or a woman? Which one is it?” The first time he asked, I said, “I’m not telling,” but the second time I said, “A woman dressed as a man.” He said, “I knew it! Because you don’t have – ” and at this, he drew a line across his throat with his finger. Actually, the second time he asked he said, “Are you a male comrade or a female comrade?” “Comrade,” for the younger generations, is slang for gay; I doubt the tout intended this, but I took secret pleasure in saying I was a female comrade. He wrote his surname and a phone number on a piece of paper and insisted I call him to book a tour to Tian Chi. I told him my surname and turned the deadbolt as soon as he left.

Friday, October 07, 2011

gaochang ruins

I blew my cover. Or rather, I learned I didn't have a cover to blow. Today I solicited the services of a minibus driver to take me from tourist site to tourist site around Turpan. Also on the minibus were five women from Chongqing and their silent male friend. The most outgoing of the group invited me to join them - an unnecessary invitation, since we were all joined together for the day anyway, but I appreciated the gesture and returned it by being especially pushy with my extra raisins and sweet crackers. She also kept turning around in the minibus to ask, "小伙子 (a.k.a. "Hey, champ!"), don't you like traveling with us? Isn't it fun?"

We went to check out a karez museum, Flaming Mountain, the Gaochang ruins, and a minaret on the edge of town. Karez are the underground irrigation channels that the people of this hot dry dusty region created millennia ago to turn this Martian wasteland landscape into the grape-producing capital of the known world. Very cool they did this with primitive tools (ox-drawn winches, wicker baskets) to haul dirt out of the ground to create a channel sheltered from the evaporative punishment of the desert sun. Flaming Mountain is the site of many Xi You Ji stories, and I identified very strongly with the monkey king as a child and was very interested in seeing it in the flesh.

I am wearing the outfit I've been wearing the last few days - chinos, hiking boots, button down shirt, leather belt, and a dour expression - I fear that smiling gives me away instantly as either a gay or a girl. By gay I don't mean homosexual but someone who can't play man. Again I've been trying to take up space and touch things like they belong to me and talk with my mouth full and do all the things that suggest I feel entitled to exist in the world however I please. This to me is also a masculine trait.

After I had some snapped some photos of myself atop a camel, I returned to the minibus and struck up a conversation with the woman directly in front of me. We were chatting about something inane, and she said something that gave me pause. Something about "像你中性的人," which means "somebody androgynous like you."  性别 is gender; 中性 literally means "middle gender." I started because I didn't quite understand what she was saying - whether she was saying was an androgynous man or an androgynous woman. And then I realized it didn't matter, and I poured forth in one long breath all of my secrets: "Here's my secret, I'm actually a woman, I'm dressed this way because it's easier to travel alone as a man, I'm wearing a chest binder, I thought I could fool everyone, it's exhausting to keep up this performance, could you tell I'm a girl and I'm actually 31?" She laughed and said she could tell there was something not quite normal, that she and her friends had wondered about my gender, and that her 19 year-old daughter was a tomboy so she was already on alert.

And thus your neurotic genderbender learned that she is perceived not as a 31 year old woman, not as an 18 or 12 year old boy, but as Pat, asexual, genderless, curious, weird. Perhaps this explains all the people who double take, then stand near me and look at me from their peripheral vision and imagine I can't see. I was expecting people to be more direct about their curiosity, since generally in other countries no one seems to have a problem asking "ARE YOU A MAN OR A WOMAN???" so I took silence in China to mean that I passed successfully as the former. Ooop.

And thus also I remembered that I am not the first person to do this, and there is no need to treat other countries like precious foolish children who must be shielded from the truth of my female masculinity. The woman from Chongqing has a tomboy daughter. There is language in China to describe what I'm doing. This is the country that gave the world Mulan, folks. Once upon a time I knew this and did not need to act like a weird, rude, dour nose-picker in order to convince myself that I fit in. Perhaps I will shrug off the cursed binder (so goddamn hot, and it feels like it's dislocating my shoulder every time I encase my broad sausage body in it) and start going to women's rooms again - but nahhh, why start now?

Gaochang ruins were a sight to behold, mostly because nobody else felt that way and I had a few square miles of hot dust and dead people's architecture to myself. Well, myself and one of the women from Chongqing, a 40-something electrical worker named Yan Ming, with whom I walked and chatted and flirted. I don't know if Yan Ming knew the secret that her other friend from Chongqing knew, and maybe it didn't matter. I for one was very pleased with myself for having the language skills to flirt with older women. ("You don't look a day over 40!" and "What a beautiful scarf that you just bought for only 10 RMB" etc.)  There were two signs in the entire site, and two of them offered this spartan guidance: "Big Temple -->"  A few kilometers from the entrance we came across the first living soul - the bleached donkey (presumably) bone we found does not count - an ancient Uighur man playing a beautiful stringed instrument with a long curving neck and a drumhead body made of a stretched snakeskin. I paid him 10 RMB to sit next to him, wear his sweaty crocheted cylindrical hat, and strum that thing for a while. It sounded like it had a resonator cone but it was as light and unmechanical as a hollow snake.

We returned to the car and I sat behind the original woman from Chongqing and stuffed sweet crackers and raisins into my face as we drove the hot barren stretch back to Turpan. She wanted to know how much it cost to send her 19 year-old tomboy daughter to study abroad in America, and I ended up drawing up an imaginary budget for someone living in a city, living in a "rural area" (since that's the only demographic place designation I know besides "city"), and someone living in "a place that is in between a city and a rural area" (again the circumlocution because the speaker is an unprepared incompetent who knows 30% of the vocabulary she should know for someone as educated as her). We chatted about grapes, tourist sites, the risk to Han Chinese people in Kashgar (the next destination for this Han Chinese unprepared incompetent!). It was very nice not to have to pretend to be anything but myself to this woman. When I left them, I caught her and said with a wink, "You can tell your friends my secret after I leave." And now I have a bus to Urumqi to catch.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

urumqi and turpan

I believe I have just gone insane for macadamia nuts. I just spent twenty minutes hunched over a low stool with a metal lever in one hand and a sack of nuts in front of me. I ate feverishly through the bag, and when I got to the last five filberts, which could not be opened, I tried to smash them with every hard surface in my hotel room that could be lifted and dropped: my boot, the hair dryer, the bedside lamp. It was when I found myself bouncing on the edge of the bed with an unopenable mac nut under the bedpost that I realized I was not only eating but also acting like a nut and that delicious as they might have potentially been the last five fucking nuts were not going into my mouth and it was time to stop.

Xinjiang turns out to be the land of fruit and nuts. Which is deeply satisfying, since it accords with my primitive understanding of what central Asia is like. Except there are no flying carpets here, which is a little disappointing. Breakfast this morning was an apple, two dozen longans, and twenty minutes of peanuts. The units are time not weight because they were shelled and therefore impossible to gauge as mass. I cracked them open as I read the final pages of a terrible dull uninspired New York Times bestseller, Little Bee, do not recommend unless you want something that makes you think, with every page, "Why am I wasting my time!!!" I went around buying shit on the street in Urumqi last night in the way I do when I’m traveling, pointing at things, saying, “HOW MUCH?” and being too unschooled in the native tongue to request anything but what is offered and then walking away with way more than I want of what I don’t need. And that is why I have a kilogram of green raisins in my backpack. To the apple, longans, and peanuts I added a hubcap-sized piece of Uighur bread and a bottle of water and I called it my peasant traveler breakfast. The bread was inlaid with onion pieces and cooked in a tandoor-like oven. Delicious but farinaceous and therefore completely devoid of nutrition.

Later in the day, I bought something similar in Turpan, except covered in sesame seeds and shaped like a huge bulbous bialy, which I ate lustily while asking a clerk in a China Mobile store how I could switch my Shanghai SIM card to a Xinjiang number. I don’t know why my performance of masculinity includes letting that store clerk see the opening stages of my digestion, but somehow I felt more like his bro doing so. Perhaps this is also why I pick my nose enthusiastically and clear my throat like I’m about to vomit and make fart noises with my mouth when I go into the squat toilets in the men’s rooms – the first two because they are acts I see other men and no women doing, and the last because otherwise it’s kind of weird that a man needs to go to the squat toilet just to pee. I’m only going into men’s rooms now. I doubt my performance is as convincing as I believe it to be – especially after I realized with horror, staring into the faces of cisgendered men sitting on the train across from me today, that I am completely lacking in male secondary sex characteristics (Adam’s apple, facial hair, receding hairline, voice) and not really able to contain my female ones (tits, hips, monthly blood birth, voice), so I am probably not perceived as even an 18 year old boy, as I had previously hoped, but a prepubescent twelve year old, or perhaps as just a weird butchy woman picking her nose and making farting noises with her mouth in the men’s squat toilet. I watch your eyes when you watch me, you know, when they go from my face to my chest to my face and back to my chest.

I unloaded a bunch of unnecessary clothing in Urumqi (and Little Bee, literally a weight lifted off my shoulders to get rid of that load of crap) and wandered away from my hotel this morning with a lightened pack on my back, gnawing on my hubcap. I turned left when it suited me and right when it didn’t. I ended up wandering along street after street of construction supply vendors. The stores selling the same types of materials were clustered together, so there were ten storefronts selling PVC pipes, then another ten selling plastic siding, nylon rope, steel joints, stone lions, kitchen sinks, air conditioning units, lumber, drywall, canvas bags, tile, doorknobs, 15’ by 15’ panes of glass. The air smelled like kerosene and welding and plastics everywhere, even far away from the construction supply store. Maybe that’s just what pollution in China smells like because I have experienced it in every Chinese city I’ve been to: Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Songjiang, and now Urumqi. One of those special Chinese fix-it cargo vehicles – a motorcycle engine on a three-wheeled base with a pickup truck-style bed in the back for cargo but no cab to cover the driver – whipped around a corner and dumped four pieces of drywall, a sack of dry cement, and a bundle of plastic siding hard onto the ground near me. The driver and the passenger hanging on bedside him stopped to load the fouled pieces of drywall back onto the tricycle. Had I been walking a few feet ahead, that mess of shit would have slid onto me and – broken my femur? I don’t understand how people don’t just die all the time here.

Today I also heard my neighbors in the hotel having sex loudly through the thin crepe that passed for our shared wall. It was clear enough that I heard the man’s phlegm popping in his throat and could guess, by the rhythm of the woman’s noises (an interrogatory series of “Ohh? Ohh? Ohh?”s), that she was paying more attention to the television that was playing in their room than to the phlegm-popper laboring over her. I also saw someone trying to beat a stray dog that had run off with a scrap of something with a standup dustpan. Also, the man that shooed me out of the seat I had chosen on the train to Turpan (because the seat assigned to me was occupied by a young man with red rimmed eyes and a shirt covered in nonsense English) ate a bowl of instant noodles, stripped to his undershirt, and fell asleep stretched across three seats and a suitcase. Our train stopped 58km short of my destination, so I followed a tout into a shared cab to make the rest of the trip and waited while he drove circles around Daheyan shouting and honking at pedestrians to fill up the final seat in the car. We never found one so each of the three passengers agreed to pay 5 RMB more for the trip. We rode a twenty year-old Volkswagen whose interior was upholstered with dusty rugs and seatcovers bearing the Beijing Olympics mascots but captioned in a Cyrillic language. I tried to offer a macadamia nut to the woman sitting next to me, but she refused and called me very keqi, which pleased me. The driver shared a cigarette with the passenger in the front seat, who then hocked a loogie out the window that came back to hit me in the face. The driver accelerated into speedbumps. The landscape we crossed was flat, dry, dusty, and so devoid of life that I thought for sure if we were to die in a crash out here, my body would never be returned home. When a Uighur family standing next to a broken down cargo tricycle flagged our taxi down, the driver put the Volkswagen into reverse to get back to the scene. The car made several loud banging noises, after each of which the driver said, “Aiyo!” but kept on reversing just the same.

I’m going to be immodest. I’m fantastic at the mechanics of travel. I’m a champ at buying train tickets, walking out of a transport hub and orienting myself using one street corner and the position of the sun in the sky, collecting provisions before long-distance trips, hunting down a hotel room in a new city, finding a café in which to page through a travel guide, stringing together activities that are the right mix of high energy and rest. Or at least I tell myself I’m fantastic at these things, which gives me an inflated sense of my own competence, which means I don’t make plans ahead of time when I travel because I just rely on my instincts to steer me to the right places once I’m on the ground. Which is dumb, because I end up in mild situations, e.g. running out of money and sleeping in bus stations or riding a subway from terminus to terminus in order to sleep the hour in between, or the one I found myself in last night, dead tired, sweating through my chest binder, needing to find a squat toilet, but with two hours ahead of me of wandering to Urumqi hotels asking the same series of questions: Do you have a room free? How much? Do you accept foreigners?

Today’s activities after my arrival at Turpan from Urumqi were (1) triage my total failure to plan an itinerary by assaulting my hotel attendant with questions about the feasibility of each one of my travel permutations; (2) walk purposefully to the mud-and-straw minaret at the edge of town while gnawing on a sesame seed-covered super bialy, stopping along the way to startle a German woman with a Rolleiflex with my cheerful English language commentary on her choice of camera; (3) eat noodle soup in a big outdoor food stall area; and (4) wander through a supermarket discreetly releasing noxious gasses due to aforementioned noodle soup for the next half hour, buying only a roll of vitamin C candies and a tiny metal spoon but leaving so much atmosphere behind. I also attempted to enter an Internet cafe but my Chinese was apparently so incomprehensible that I was redirected to the second floor, which turned out to be a video arcade where people were bent over bed-sized tabletop flatscreens playing a multiplayer game in which each player seemed to control a type of fish and the object was to throw away one’s pocket change and waning days of youth as quickly as possible, and when I returned to the wang ba to ask for my half hour on the computers I was told that I needed a Chinese identity card to register my time. Why does China need to know which Internet bar I am surfing porn I mean sending correspondences from? Twice today I gave impossible instructions to taxi drivers (“Take me to a busy intersection where I can walk around and shop and eat; you know, re nao!”), once in Urumqi and later in Turpan.

The landscape out of Urumqi went like this: city city city, construction zone, cranes, exhaust chimneys, then suddenly rocks and very low scrub and flat hot dry dusty plain, the color of office carpeting. Windfarms, unexpected dense stands of birch trees, orchards, then back to flat hot dry dusty plain. We passed by wings of dismantled windmills on the cab ride to Turpan. They were so massive I thought they were reclining Buddhas statues at first. Apparently Turpan is the third lowest place on Earth. It is 154 meters below sea level and also the hottest spot in China – though only a merciful 80 degrees these days. The people here look a lot less like me than they did in Urumqi. There appear to be lots of Uighurs, and Chinese language is not getting me as far. Signs here are in Chinese, some language with Arabic script, and sometimes some language with Cyrillic script. Wonderful to have three options to not comprehend.

Tomorrow I will be traveling from local spot to local spot, probably exacerbating my bunions, eating unwashed things bought on the street that will make my intestines go “Ohh? Ohh? Ohh?” Saturday is a twenty-four hour ride on a sleeper bus to Kashgar and the Sunday they will contact the consulate to say that this flatulent woman dressed as a twelve year old boy needs to be repatriated but her body can’t be found. Oh my God I love to travel.


Blogger blocked and Internet access crappy so I'll write when I can.

First two days were in Beijing, Changping district, with WF and her husband WM. She's pregnant and married now and we're two years older but we're still both nerds fascinated with each other's cultures. I try to disabuse her of starry visions of America as land of free and home of the fair. She's dissatisfied with human rights in China and she tells me horror stories of rich people's kids running over poor people with impunity and the burial of the evidence of the high speed rail crash this May. She's reading books on the O.J. Simpson trial and employment law and Walmart in America. It all seems like roses to her. How does she know about the five love languages? I don't know, but she does. I thumb through my dictionary looking for these words: analytical, leftist politics, discrimination, prejudice. WF reminds me that I was reading "Pride and Prejudice" last time I was in Beijing and she taught me the words for both. I tell her about Troy Davis, per M.W.'s suggestion. WF says her dreams growing up in rural Hubei were (1) open a women's bookstore, with a cafe in the back for people to talk about the books they were reading; (2) open a children's library, so that rural kids would have a place to play together. She asks me whether it's true that in Europe and America people go to cafes and talk about politics. I say it's more likely that people go to cafes to stare alone at photographs of their ex-lover's new girlfriends on Facebook. Then she brings me to a woman-owned bookstore/lending library on the road between Wudaokou and Beijing University - a road we've gone down many times before, with riding the rack of my bike - that has a cafe in the back where WF says she goes when she needs to escape from the crush of city life. It makes me wonder whether she will ever find the American dream she is looking for, because it appears to be in front of her in China. She says she's become more Buddhist since I last saw her, Buddhism to her meaning serenity about the things she can't control, like the heightened possibility of birth defects with her soon-to-be-born child and her sister's estrangement from the family. That, and she begs the old men with slingshots not to shoot down robins and she says an amitofo prayer before closing the lid on a hundred tiny live shrimp she's about to bring to death by boiling. I find a five RMB bill on the ground on our way to the market on the second morning. We're there to buy buns for breakfast and veggies for lunch, and she says, "Look! Five bucks!" I pick it up and hand it to her and she buys jiao bai with it. Later she recalls the story to WM, who cannot believe I would accept the bad luck of taking money from the ground and spending it. He says, "Chinese people believe if you gain something you lose something too." I say, "Zhendema?! Let's go back to the spot and put a five on the ground." WM says, "Don't worry, I took care of it." Meaning he has flung a five RMB bill out the window already. My first two days in Beijing are spent shopping for food, preparing food with WF, playing ping pong with WF and WM, and walking slowly with WF and talking and talking and talking. We try to go back to a memory we have both cherished - a giant bell next to a picturesque pond surrounded by gingko trees on the campus of Beijing University under which we stood and onto which I etched some sort of graffiti. Neither of us could remember what I wrote. WF is in a heavy mood, so she tells me that this pond was the site of many suicides during the Cultural Revolution. I ask her how it is possible that a person could drown in a pond only six feet deep, and she speculates that the suicides dove in headfirst and held onto the bunches of grass at the bottom until they died. The campus is closed, and we can't return to our spot. Qinghua University is closed, too, so we just go back to the bookstore and rest a while. We take buses from place to place and meet WM and her cousin for Yunnan hotpot, yak meat in hot stew, which is surprisingly delicious but leaves my clothes smelling like hotpot for days. So many reasons I love WF. It is her birthday in two weeks and I'll be back in Beijing to celebrate.