Things have been kind of quiet recently here in Rebgong, what with our school not starting until the 16th (others, of course, having already begun) and with the repeated dousings of snow causing the majority of locals to stay inside, drinking tea by the warmth of their stoves. As I unfortunately have no stove, I am instead forced to bundle up to work in my apartment – yes, it can be that cold – or bundle up and go outside.
Which is not at all a bad option, despite the recent unusual lack of bluesky days. Typically, winters in Qinghai are dry and bonechillingly cold; temperatures in the negative twenties (celsius), frigid winds sweeping off the high grasslands at high velocity, and a near-complete lack of snow create a powerful incentive to escape to anywhere else. But this winter nonetheless has a redeeming feature. There is nothing like the profoundly deep blueness of a plateau sky, a blue that – for us marooned in the deep interior of a vast continent – is the only substitute for the unimaginably distant ocean. These days are so common in winter that last December I found myself wishing for even the faintest suggestion of cloud to provide variety – and to give my facial muscles a break from endlessly squinting through my ten-kuai sunglasses, whose paint-on “UV protection” was scratched off within a week or two.
On these flawless subzero days, when everything appears in almost painfully sharp focus, as if cut by the sterile knife of some surgeon or ruthless logician or scientist, who, in his search for truth, or at least his search for something interesting to do, scalpeled everything in the world into perfection in a relentless attempt to make every speck of reality match those archetypal images of reality lodged in our imaginations – on such days I leave everything behind and start my way uphill. Heading on foot for the distant heights, which in the unimaginably clear air appear to be within arm’s reach, I clear my thoughts and let the sharp air blow the quotidian out of my head. On these days, with the harsh blue skies revealing everything around me in its natural perfection, I can actually feel – maybe even hear – myself think. While running, or walking, or simply ambling relaxedly along the mountainside, I can allow myself the luxury of thinking without consequence or even without result, following chains of ideas simply out of the pleasure of discovery, with no deadlines, no required conclusions, no pressure or expectations of anything, really – a pleasure of discovery no different from that, and in fact the internal counterpart to, the mountain wandering itself.
Recently, though, I’ve been feeling enclosed; the surprising lack of this harshly perfect weather has kept me closer to the valley, and my thoughts have correspondingly been less adventurous and strayed less far from home. But this morning dawned brilliantly clear, one of those sublimely, mercilessly beautiful days, and I ran excitedly outdoors as if called by the piper’s flute. Returning from my run, I felt more relaxed than I’d been in days (which, not to take away from the message or to digress too far, was also due to my eventual success – after nearly a week of attempts, numerous visits to the bank and the bookstore, and countless hours on the phone with Chinese companies – in buying seventy dictionaries for our kids. Really, you wouldn’t think it would be that hard, but there is an established system in place in China to prevent you from doing just that) – more relaxed and ready to actually begin working again after an all-too-long holiday. Which, my mind cleared by the scalpels of the bright, fresh, air, is what I did.
Extra Credit Note:On the subject of the abovementioned “work” – I have begun the actual writing of the long-planned textbook for our third-year students. If anyone out there has some really excellent grammar resources, I would greatly appreciate if you could let me know/send them to me via email!