Sunday, August 26, 2007

Kunming, Again

The next two weeks of my stay in China were a mix of procrastination, vacation, and stomach flu. When I first arrived back in Kunming, by myself for real after 5 months of a support network of Thai and American friends, parents, etc, I felt pretty intimidated by the prospect of another five weeks alone in such an alien place. My intimidation wasn't for no reason-- although my ISP experience was wonderful and fulfilling, it was also (at times) horribly frustrating and lonely. I wasn't feeling quite up to facing that with no one to text sarcastically to (after a wonderful mishap which allowed us to hang out for a day, Diana went off to Hong Kong and then Taiwan to finish our her summer), so I tried to make some Nujiang resource connections in Kunming (mostly failing, unfortunately), ate a lot of American breakfast food at Salvador's and other coffee shops on Foreigner Street, and took a mental vacation. During this time, I caught up with Kevin (the Thai-American-Chinese Grad student I'd become friends with over the semester), made friends with an exchange student named Ben from Virginia, had dinner with Lu Laoshi, and met John's girlfriend (and John) at longlast, and had Dim Sum with my Chinese teachers/friends.

My Chinese teachers, Gao Laoshi (age 26) and Zeng Laoshi (age 28), who became good friends of mine, at Dim Sum during Kunming v. 2.0

I looked upon the time as respite from the looming darkness of Research Mode, and for that reason I may have been guilty of staying just a little too long. It was so very tempting-- getting to see John again, and meet his lovely other half, was really nice, and Ben and I had some crazy adventures together, going to the Buddhist temple complex down the street from campus and seeing a Buddhist funeral, using the pool at his apartment, trying and failing to watch "The Graduate" in Chinese.

Part of the temple complex down the street from campus

Unfortunately, that was when stomach flu part 2 (which would eventually extend to parts 3, 4, and 5) set in, and I was forced to stay in Kunming an extra 3 or 4 days, as the prospect of being sick on a 10-hour bus ride was not particularly appealing. That part was pretty frustrating, as I was already a little bit mad at myself for procrastinating so long, but there was nothing to be done about it. I spent my days alternately venturing out to take pictures and enjoy the city and sitting in my room shotgunning Pepto and reading a bad John Grisham book. At least I got to take some nice shots of Kunming street life and my environment there as a whole:

Kunming streets

The little-old-man er hu player who always played at the entrance to Foreigner's Street. He just looks like he should be an erhu player. I think it's the fu manchu.

Green Lake Park

Finally after several days of frustration bordering on boredom, after exchanging my bus ticket three times, I was able to hop a sleeper bus to Liuku. As Liuku in the summer is pretty much as hot, humid, and unpleasant as a place might possibly be, I only stayed there one night, long enough to get hooked up with someone who might find me a translator in Fugong. And then I was off again, to the last part of my journey-- thesis research in Nujiang valley all by my lonesome.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Perspectives from the Eastern Horizon, Column 1

Continuing the run of articles I've written about my experience in China, my first column of a series they're calling "Perspectives from the Eastern Horizon" appeared in The Belmont Citizen-Herald last week.

The inside of this airplane is ordinary—uncomfortable seats that look like they were upholstered by someone locked in a darkened room; flight attendants, starched and smiling; a man in the next row snoring lightly, his chin on his chest. It’s what’s outside that is remarkable. I am flying over Xinjiang, China, an area of savagely serrated mountains and vast deserts with nothing much in between to roll out the welcome mat. I stare out the window at a range of peculiarly ragged sandstone peaks that look like crumpled newspaper ascending from an arid, dusty floor, and think about the places to which this semester of travel and study abroad in China has brought me.

Just last night I was in Beijing, luxuriating in a well-appointed hotel room, an island of quiet comfort in the midst of that smoggy, perpetually hurried city, resting after an afternoon of playing the history student to the city’s many ancient sites. Three days previously I was taking a turn as tourist in smog-choked Xi’an, home of the famous Terracotta Soldiers, an all-clay army one particularly arrogant Chinese emperor had manufactured and buried in his tomb to ensure his continued rule in the afterlife. Two nights before that, I was living the expatriot life in the warm air of Kunming, Yunnan province, in the far southwest of the country, working on a mammoth 36 page term paper while enjoying the triumphant feeling of familiarity with a place that in many ways embodies the opposite characteristics of my homeland. And four weeks before that I was Girl Anthropologist, spending my study abroad program’s independent research period learning about the folkstories of ethnic minorities (similar to our Native American tribes) in the remote Nujiang Valley, an area of towering emerald mountains and ferociously thundering rapids a two-hour drive from the Myanmar border.

Perhaps it is the exaggerated distance from my window seat to the landscape below, the perspective afforded by air travel, that allows me to be struck at this moment by how profoundly disconnected each of those wide-ranging experiences has felt, how independent each one seems from the others--a separate epoch, almost a different lifetime. I feel as if I am a child looking at the different rooms in a dollhouse where the maker has forgot to put in doorways. Each of these experiences is a separate component in one body, a different and discreet view onto the whole vista of my experience. My explorations are united in their role as a part of this whole, but to me they feel as if they have no inherent connections, as if each was completed by a different person. Yesterday night, in that wonderfully cool hotel room in that city many times the size of Los Angeles, I couldn’t sleep. Recalling my adventures in the dark, the thought suddenly came to me: “I’m like a cat, I have so many lives.” Thinking about this admittedly curious gem, I smile a little. There’s nothing so simultaneously silly and profound as 3 AM epiphanies.

Despite the tendency of that hour to produce jewels of absurdity, I do think there’s an important idea to be uncovered here. Growing up, living the way I have, it’s been easy to forget how lucky I am to have enjoyed the opportunities I’ve been offered. The prospect of being to live the lives of so many different people, whether they be expat, researcher, and student or father, lawyer, and golfer, is a luxury that not everyone can afford. The chance to try on so many facets of the world is truly something to stop and contemplate, if not for which to show gratitude.

The plane is now traveling over snowy, craggy peaks that proclaim that they mean business as they cut ragged holes in the cotton wool clouds. I can feel the bracelet I bought while playing explorer on the Laos border resting against my wrist, the grit of sand from a trip to the Gobi Desert wedged in my sandals. And I realize: we are the one piece of evidence that all the lives we live exist in concert, the one place where our pattern of experience converges into something tangible, something concrete.

The mountains look fierce, sharp, and dangerous, and yet from here surmountable, as if I could leap easily, lightly, from one peak to the next. And so it is with my various lives, spread out below me through the miracle of perspective, a distance that will only increase as I grow older. Yet another piece of richness to add to the collection of my experience, then, to have the memories of my many lives to cherish for years to come, to hop from peak to peak in my mind’s eye like so many newspaper mountains.

I'm hoping to write several more columns for appearance in the Citizen Herald once things get in control on campus. Also, for those of you interested in following my writing appearances on other subjects, I will have a piece in The Portland Phoenix coming out in early September-- I'll provide a link here once it appears.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rain in the Desert-- Two Days in Dunhuang

Well, it's clearly a little bit more difficult to keep this blog up when I'm in the US. But I still am very much intent on finishing out the documentation of my amazing adventure in China, as slowly as is neccessary.

The last part of our Xinjiang trip took us to Dunhuang, Gansu province. Dunhuang is not actually a part of Xinjiang at all, but it's the next stop on the Silk Road, an important and historical nexus in the geographical center of China. Dunhuang marks the end of the Gobi desert as well, and the overnight train we took to get there took us across hundreds of miles of flat, open, sandy nothing. That night, we schmoozed with our train car-mates-- a few Americans, a couple of Canadians, and some Chinese businessmen on the way to a conference who were very interested in hearing about my time in China. It turns out that the Americans, a son and father travelling together, were on a trip for the son's graduation present from Rutger's. When he told me he was from West Orange, New Jersey a bell rang in my head. Turns out he carpooled to high school for two years with Zack, a good friend of mine from Wesleyan. I've said it so many times now it's almost a mantra-- the world is so incredibly big and so very small, all at once.

I woke up from restless sleep over rhythmically clanking tracks to see rain pouring in sheets onto the waves of desert. It was raining so hard onto the hot sand that fog was pouring up from the ground, making it hard to see. When we got to Dunhuang, our guide informed us that it rains maybe 10 or 11 times a year. "You've brought us luck!" she said, as we drove down the soaking but arid and sandy road to the city. That day, we went to the Mugao Grottoes, a set of stunning cave paintings and sculptures in an extensive framework of caves, much much better preserved than the grottoes we'd seen in Turpan. Not only was there still vibrant paint on much of the artwork, but none of them had been defaced by Muslims on hajj (holy war), a major problem with Buddhist art in Xinjiang. The grottoes numbered in the high hundreds, but only some of them were open to visitors at any given time, to keep the more exquisite works from light damage. There was one cave with 10,000 Buddhas painted all over the ceiling. Another featured a 58-meter tall Buddha, one of the tallest sitting Buddhas in China. Walking into the cave I could only see two enormous feet with gilded toenails, a sash slung between them with red-detailed paint. And then the cavern opened out and the Buddha shot up up up into the gloom. Before the government paid for all the caves to be closed off (which is a shame because of the loss of such open-air majesty, but makes sense in terms of preventing damage), the Buddha would have been looking out with a strangely morose and wise air over the entire dusty valley. Now he looks at the wall in front of him. Unfortunately (but again, understandably), we weren't allowed to take pictures in the caves.

By the time we finished at the grottoes, the rain had cleared and the sky was a searing blue. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and ate dinner with our guide, who assured us that rain today meant sun tomorrow. And yet-- we woke the next morning to yet more pounding rain. Our guide remarked on our unusual "luck," but we felt grumpy. What were the odds that we would get stuck with crummy weather two days in a row? We searched the city for a decent place to eat and got wetter and wetter, finally coming upon a Uighur-style restaurant where they made noodles for us by hand and, beaming, showed us pictures of their sons and grandsons.

After lunch we set out on what turned into an unfortunate wild goose chase through the Gobi desert. Our guide had been misinformed about the time it would take to go to two places of interest about 100 km outside of town, and the driving rain made everything slower and, worse, washed out the scenery into a bland blend of khaki and gray. After almost three hours hurtling through the ecru emptiness, we got to an ancient Silk Road gate, basically a forbidding clay square rising up out of banks of desert grass. Not far from that, we viewed a surviving section of the original Great Wall. Not many people know that although the Han emperor started the construction of the Great Wall in around 100 AD, it was built and rebuilt in bits and chunks for the next 1600 years. The portion of the wall we viewed in Dunhuang was one of the 2000 year old portions, made of turf and mud that's become brick over the years. Despite the rain, seeing the wall (which was once over 10 feet high) was fascinating.

The Ancient Han Great Wall, a long way from Beijing

The Beijing Great Wall (for purposes of comparison)

As we turned around to do the long drive home, the weather started to turn in our favor again. By the time we'd arrived back in Dunhuang, the sky was clear and the sun was drying out the sodden sand. My parents were disgruntled about the length and bumpiness of our journey and just wanted to call it quits, but I convinced them to go to the last Dunhuang attraction-- the famous dunes that form the very end of the Gobi desert. It was well worth our visit. The desert in Dunhuang looked nothing like it had in Turpan, and the dunes were positively breathtaking, like something out of National Geographic. My dad and I undertook a sweaty hike up one of them, climbing basically a ladder-like set of steps up the long, high flank. The view on the other side was incredible, a sea of dunes undulating, unmarred and unmarked, into the distance. On the way down, I decided to swallow my anxiety and try the Y10 dune slide. Seated on a little wooden sled, I raced down the second half of the dune, shrieking and getting sand everywhere. It was so much fun!

The dunes at the end of the Gobi Desert. Damn.

Sliding down the dune

We boarded a plane to Beijing early the next morning, where my parents caught a plane back to the US and I began the next leg of my journey-- Yunnan alone.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Exploring the Gobi Desert, Part 1: Turpan

Turpan (which is "Tulufan" in Mandarin) is an oasis town in the middle of the Gobi Desert, about three hours by car from Urumqi. The day we drove there was cloudy and very windy-- we got out in the middle of the desert just to look at the vast flat nothing (not quite what I was picturing in my first real desert experience, but that came later) and feel the incredible wind blasting across the nothing at more nothing. On some days, it's considered dangerous to drive across that portion of the desert because the wind can knock your car over. Our guide said it even derailed a train a few years back. But on the day we drove across, we could just feel it pushing at our car, knocking it around like a boat. Our driver had experience with the conditions, though, and we arrived safely.

There was a wealth of things to do in Turpan, and we miraculously managed to squeeze them all in in the 36 hour period we stayed. The first place we went was to the ruins of a 2000 year old city set basically on an island in the middle of a split river. The city existed for hundreds of years before it was abandoned, mostly because its location, with water easily accessible and sheer cliffs on both sides acting as natural defenses against enemies, was so perfect. The city, called Jiahe, was really huge and quite remarkable to see-- the skeletons of limestone buildings, reminiscent of Hopi cliff dwellings, which had been carved down into the cliff rather than built up from its surface. Additionally, we visited at the end of a grey, achingly hot day, and other visitors were few and far between, a blessing in tourist-obsessed China (I have already had several opportunities to enumerate here my hatred for Chinese tourists). The silence was really powerful as we walked among the ruins, and our guide even took us out to the edge of the cliff (not a spot one is supposed to go to, given the delicacy of the ruins) where we could see verdant green blossoming out from where the river ran far below.

The ancient city of Jiahe

Approaching the Turpan oasis from the desert was very dramatic. My first thought was that the sudden wave of darkness extending toward the horizon was a large body of water, a lake, almost an inland sea. Not until we had travelled much closer did I realize that the darkness was comprised of trees, grass, and shrubs fit closely together, a remarkable contrast with the barren, sweeping lines and khaki colors of the desert. The oasis is something like one hundred square kilometers, very large, although the city itself only extends through a small portion of that. The rest is comprised of farmland, mostly vineyards. Turpan is very famous for its grapes and grape products-- wine and raisins, to be specific. We visited a winery and learned about how wine is made in the desert, did some tasting, and some exploring. I had some really interesting grape juice-- it was much milder than the grape juice I've had in America, almost like it had water in it (they assured me it didn't). We just don't get a real variety of grapes in America, I guess.

Turpan Grape trellises

The winery housed a large market selling Uighur and other trinkets and more types of raisins than you ever imagined to exist. We weren't really interested in buying things but we took a look around, anyway. As I stopped to glance at some dubious looking antiques, a man in the traditional Uighur Muslim skullcap came up to me and asked, "Ni shi shenme shaoshu minzu?" which means "What minority ethnic group are you from?" This is remarkable, because he did not ask "Ni shi cong shen me di fang lai de?" ("Where are you from?") and the former question (the one he actually asked) assumes that the person being asked is a native of China (the phrase "shaoshu minzu" specifically refers to minority groups in China). The man thought that I and my family were of one of the many ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Kazakh or Russian! He thought we were native Chinese! And what's more, when I tried to explain that we were from America, he wouldn't believe me! It was a pretty remarkable thought, and made me feel pretty good about my Chinese skills. Definitely a high point in confidence there, and the situation also says a lot about the ethnic situation and the standards of who "looks Chinese" in that area.

From the winery we went to visit a site of a special kind of irrigation canal (whose name, which is Uighur, I can't remember) that's been around the area for 2000 years. Turpan is the second lowest point on earth (The true lowest point is the Dead Sea in Israel, meaning I've now gone to the top two!) and the ancestors of the people in Turpan engineered an irrigation system that guides snowmelt from the nearby Hindu-Kush mountains down the plain. Gravity was on their side, and so they've had clean, running water for 2000 years, which has allowed them an extraordinary quality of life as well as helped them carefully control the agriculture that keeps that life going. They also added some engineering craziness of an extreme ahead-of-their-time caliber to the system to avoid cave-ins in the canals, assure air circulation, and allow for tunnel upkeep. Many of the Uighurs in the area still make use of the canals, and the luckier ones have them running right through their houses.

A 2000 year old irrigation canal

The next day, our exploration of the desert around Turpan continued with a visit to some famous grottoes (although not as famous as the ones we would see in Dunhuang) where dramatic Buddhist cave paintings hundreds of years old can still be seen (although many of them have been defaced by Muslims from the area on Holy War.) The best part of this visit was the amazing desert scenery we passed through to get there. The weather had cleared up since the day before, and the sky was incredibly blue, the Flaming Mountains (so named because of their red color) dramatic. In fact, the famous/famously tacky Chinese movie "The Monkey King" (showed on both PBS and Chinese CCTV incessantly) was filmed in part there because of the "typical" desert scenery.

When we got to the grottoes, it turned out that there were a few people out front waiting for tourists to lure them into riding camels. But rather than in a tame little boring circle (like many of the services in the Turpan area), this particular group went on tours into the surrounding desert. My parents and I decided to try it out, donning hats and excessive quantities of sunscreen, and went out on camels for about an hour and a half. The ascent up the enormous dune/mountain in the back of the grottoes was fun and not particularly taxing: the camels walked steadily upward, and I hung onto the hump in front of me, which jiggled amusingly, to keep my balance. There was no one around anywhere as our Uighur guides led us into the open sand, roads in sight, just the enormity of sky, the valley stretching away into sandy haze. We came upon a few desert trees, just skeletons of vegetation that flourished as long as a thousand years ago. Our guide explained later that the Gobi Desert used to be a sea, and so in the interim between body of water and desert there was a good amount of plant life. This millenium, however, there's been so little moisture in the area that there are no bacteria around to decompose dead wood. And so a tree might have lived for 2 or 300 years in the desert; then it would take another hundred years to die. And then it would stand, slowly eroding, for as many as 5 or 600 years. Really remarkable.

On the way back down the dune, the cons of riding without a saddle (we were just resting on blankets between the two humps) became apparent. A camel's gate is fairly uneven, and staying on at a fairly severe angle going down the dune proved difficult/uncomfortable (as one had to clamp one's legs together painfully for long periods of time). Although they didn't understand English, I'm fairly sure that our guides could infer the meaning of my cries of "Oh my God, I'm going to fall off. No seriously, I'm going to fall off!", and they rerouted us to a less extreme route back. Needless to say, we all had a little trouble walking the next day.

My family on camels

Amazing desert landscapes

That night, before we caught an overnight train to Dunhuang, an old Silk Road trading point in Gansu Province, several hundred kilometers to the southeast, we took a drive through the Grape Valley, an area of much wealth where Uighurs make money hand over fist on raisins, wine, and cultivation of other fruit and nuts. Several of the families in the area run what are basically small restaurants in their houses, and so we were able to see the inside of a prosperous Uighur house (they were one of the lucky ones with an irrigation canal running right through their living room.) The house was very interesting-- open and airy with a roof of grape vines over many of the rooms-- and very little furniture, just stacks of hand-woven rugs to sleep on and a raised platform for entertaining guests.

The inside of the Uighur house where we ate dinner-- traditional noodles with lamb, fresh apricots and raisons, and almonds

Doors to Uighur houses are traditionally hand-painted

Our bellies filled, we set off for the train station, to catch the train that would take us to the last stop on our week-long exploration of the Silk Road.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Home again, Home again, Jiggity Jig

Well, I've been home now almost a week and things are starting to fall into place again.

It wasn't a fun journey home-- due to a snafu in Los Angeles, I was in transit a full 42 hours. I did manage an aisle seat for the 14 hour jaunt from Hong Kong to LA, which was lovely (well, lovelier than the middle seat would have been), but once I got to LA I was informed by my father, who was, extremely luckily, in town on business, that our plane had been cancelled, and we had been rebooked on a flight 12 hours later. He still had his hotel and rental car though, so the trip ended up fairly painless. After collapsing in the hotel room for 4 hours, we went to nearby Hermosa Beach, a little beach town right outside LA proper. (Or is it still LA proper? I've never understood) and had excellent Mexican food, people watched, and walked out onto the pier to watch the sunset. Then we got on a red eye, but not to Boston, no that would have been too simple-- to Washington DC.

Funny story, though, and by "funny" I mean "wahhhh." We sat for 45 minutes on the runway until the pilot came on, all "Sorry folks, we're having a weight distribution problem, we'll get that resolved and be on our way soon." Apparently what "get that resolved" means is "take some people's bags off the plane, including Alissa's." Needless to say, we had to run to catch our connection to Boston because we came in so late (luckily our flight was just one concourse over, if it had been in another terminal we never would have caught it) and when we finally got to Logan around 10 AM, my bag was nowhere to be found. The United people promised it would be at our house by 4 PM. Then they promised it would be there by 6 PM. Midnight. 8 AM.

My bag finally arrived at our house at noon. The next day. Argh.

After which we drove ourselves up to Maine, and the rest of the week was devoted to relaxing, rereading Harry Potter (I'm almost finished with the third book), catching up with friends, and starting to try and wrap my head around the fact that I'm Back. So far, things seem to be alright. I'm settling in, getting used to the soft beds, the constant barrage of English, revelling in amazing summer fruit and incredible cleanliness of public bathrooms. I think it helps how starkly different my lives are in China and here. It just feels like a different person did all those things in a different world, a different universe. Hopefully sometime soon I'll start coming out of the clouds and understanding that this is more than just a dream of home.