The countryside has been incredibly beautiful recently, with the patchy deciduous forests on the mountainsides yellowing seemingly to the point of bursting with color, then browning into their winter hues; the grasses turning a burnt ochre, snows, light and ephemeral, dusting the mountains morningly. Waking up each day to yet another flawless ultramarine plateau sky, I mourn my lack of motorcycle and the newly-created prefectural ‘rule’ responsible.
Yet, I realize, I have my own two feet. And after wandering about the apartment for a while, I find them leading me out of the front door, down the stairs, and out of town into the countryside.
I aim for the high peak above town to the southeast, where windwhipped prayer flags and lhatse, miniaturized by distance, are just barely visible atop its summits from my apartment window on sun-supersaturated days. The humpbacked ridgeline, buttresses rising cathedrally from steeply terraced fields of barley, rippling stream-like high over the valley towards a distant triangular peak; this mountain has been pulling me upwards from my classrooms, my office, my apartment, begging me to come outside and experience. And so today, I finally succumb and go.
Upwards through fields, then broad pastures tapering to a steep treeflecked ridgeline, as if a forest had at first consciously decided to grow before abruptly giving up halfway through the endeavor of creation. A half-born forest is what I clamber through as I make my way upwards, the slopes riddled with old marmot holes and scurrying pikas and patched with the occasional tuft of frost. I emerge at the top of the ridge into broad pastures dotted with placideyed yaks. Upwards again, past tiny skycolored freshwater pools of unknown source and unknown destination, self-contained systems if not for the yaks lapping contentedly at their shores. And now the final stretch, past bursts of primary hues, smotherings of prayer flags and lhatse, tornadoes of color whirling silently with the mountaintop winds. I find myself atop a crest where juniper is slowly burning, fragrant smokes waft far above the grasslands and fields below, which stretch out in unbelievable vastness to a distant jagged mountainfilled horizon. I take the requisite moment of silence (the modern American politically-correct version of prayer, which at once seems so profound and so empty in all of its permissiveness, and so frightening in its boundlessness) atop the peak. An unimaginably open stretch of land spreads out maplike from my feet, from the mountains above Xining to the north to the grasslands of Zeku to the south and nearly to Xiahe, in neighboring Gansu province, to the east over a range of jagged snowy peaks. I inhaled the smoky air, and, inspired by my surroundings, attempted to meditate (as only a Quaker-trained Jew can do with such earnest mediocrity). Finally giving up, I bounded down the mountainside to the south through fields of grass glowing a sunlit golden, down into a valley where the aspens and birches were flaming with the colors of autumn, live flames unquenchable even by the incredibly earnest prefectural fire department, flames only extinguishable under the pressure hose of the approaching winter. But for now, the valleys and slopes are alive with flickering, shimmering golds, hovering noiselessly above the silvery brooks, seemingly reflecting the upslope, slowly descending snows. Eventually the two will merge and all color, fantastical, yet seasonal as all fantastic things, will fade into the dusky umber of winter.
The transcendentalists may have been on to something. I live in a ridiculously beautiful place.