on a run in rural Huangzhong county

The running here in Xining is surprisingly excellent. Most of the time. Let’s make that Excellent (with conditions, see below, the author is not in any way liable for any injury (physical or psychological) or damage caused by above statement).

1. When the pollution is low. I gauge pollution by how clearly I can see the mountains about a mile away across the valley. If I can see them clearly, it’s a good day. If they’re a bit hazy, running is still fine, but you might take a few years off your life if you try something intense. If you can’t see anything, just don’t even try.

2. When there are no sandstorms flinging particulates in from Xinjiang or Mongolia.

3. When your preferred routes are not under construction (fat chance).

4. When you are not being barked at or chased by dogs. I’m not talking little fluffybuns the lapdog or Sporty the golden retriever. In Qinghai, the breed of choice is the Tibetan mastiff, which has been trained for generations to attack any unfamiliar persons. Stay as far away as possible.

The reason the running is often good in Xining, and the reason I often run into dogs, is that the city is located in a narrow, cross-shaped valley surrounded by flattopped mountains. The mountainsides surrounding the city and the plateau-tops are countryside, as rural as anything in the region. Within fifteen minutes from my house, I can be running up a steep grassy mountainside above the city, or through terraced fields of barley, farmers, amidst the wintergrey stubble, standing on a plow pulled by a single horse.

It’s amazing how close the countryside is to Xining, and- more broadly – how close the countryside can be to a city when no American-style suburbs are there to deepen the separation between the two environments. It can be shocking running uphill from a row of luxury apartment buildings to see a Hui Muslim herder, in plain view of the sumptuously furnished flats, goading eight raggedy goats across a steep hillside of parched, sunbaked loess; or a Tu couple laboriously pulling hand-pulling weeds out of their single field, a quarter-acre plot of potatoes. It is equally shocking to go to bed in my comfortably heated and furnished four-room apartment, surrounded by more than I ever needed, while less than two miles away a family of six is sharing a small raised heating platform in a two-room mud hut that, in turn, they share with their small herd of sheep and flock of chickens.

Sometimes, I want to get even deeper into the country than I can from my own apartment. So I go on adventure runs. I pore over Google maps, scouting towns and villages within an hourlong bus ride of my house with an eye to finding trailheads for runs. Or sometimes I just go. Last Sunday, after failing to get a bus to a grassland area nearby, I just went. I flagged down the first distance-bus that passed by and hopped aboard.

The bus was going to the Kumbum monastery (塔尔寺 in Chinese), the famous and massive Gelug-sect institution in nearby Huangzhong county that marks the birthplace of the renowned scholar (and Gelugpa founder) Tsongkhapa. I shared the bus with a mixed group of Tibetan pilgrims, Chinese tourists, and locals coming back from their monthly trip into the big city. In forty minutes, we arrived in the midsized town of Huangzhong, a narrow commercial strip surrounded by grasscovered hillsides, plantation forests here and there giving color and variation to the winter-dry landscape. I picked a direction and ran up into the hills.

In truth, my choice of direction wasn’t completely random. I started up the monastery’s kora (circumambulatory path) and veered off about halfway on a steep dirt track leading into a forest of birches, green buds barely visible on the ends of the fragile, delicately dancing stems. Before long, the path led out of the forest and slowly, through grasses lazily waving in the gentle breeze, crested a rounded hilltop, the mountains beyond slowly coming into view, first their snowdappled triangular tips, then widening, expanding, bulging outward into massive cones, their flanks scored by deep ravines, their slopes smoothing out below into valleys carpeted by tiny fields of potatoes and barley, which rippled oceanlike into hills and gullies, waves which reached to valley below where I stood, all the way to my feet, where, with the sound of the wind, they seemed to lap slowly, steadily, rhythmically, in geological time. The breeze off this slowly undulating geological ocean whipped past my face, cooling my body; it was time to move on.

I plunged in. Down a steep valley, along a narrow canyon, over hillsides where puzzled farmers, taking breaks from the plowing, gave me confused grins and waved me by. Into a canyon which led deep into the high mountains, and back out again, along a strangely linear valley below snowcapped peaks, cows wandering aimlessly along the road, small monasteries nestled in cliff faces overhead, old men circling a brilliantly painted white stupa, trancelike, comprehending the full length of a moment, which kept lasting as I continued downwards through the valley, finally opening into a broad, village-dotted plain stretching up towards the mountains, in the middle of which lay a massive factory, its towers belching columns of white smoke into the air as if to challenge the mountains. My moment ended, jolted by the incongruity. What was this doing here? My perfect country run was ruined. My image of rural idyll was shattered.

dark satanic mills

But then, just as quickly, I realized I could include the factory in my rural romanticism without ruining the picture. In America, we have hidden our remaining industry in the neighborhoods of our poor. We have shunted the rest of our industry to places like rural Huangzhong county, where labor is cheap and oversight (of any kind) is little. We have conceived of rurality, and of wilderness, and of the countryside in general as a place of farms and forests, of fields and grasslands and animals and picturesque houses, because we simply have the luxury of so doing. As a country, we are wealthy enough that we can concentrate undesirable things (industry, waste dumps, etc) and undesirable people (the poor) in places seemingly invisible to the middle and upper classes. We are separated from these unsightly consequences of our actions, these things we simply don’t want to see, by the suburbs, by our own blindness, by the American dream, of which blindness to reality (or to undesirables) has always been a component.

But not in Huangzhong. You live with the consequences of your actions, as well as of the consequences of America’s actions. Your trash stays in a pile, or on the ground wherever you threw it, until you pick it up and burn it. The power plant which gives you electricity is local, and the resulting coal fumes are always present in the air. You grow most of what you want to eat; if you want to eat meat, you kill it. The cycle of birth and death, of waste and reuse and renewal, is always present, and you see it in its every manifestation.

This is the difficulty – and, at the same time, the true beauty – of the countryside. Which is why I like to run there so often: to reconnect with reality.

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