Slight exaggerations (concerning schedule) included. Only slight.
I write at the tail end of an unexpected five-and-a-half-day holiday, which in theory marked the occasion of Tomb Sweeping Day, an ancient Chinese holiday in which one visits (and cleans) the tombs of one’s ancestors, and in practice marked the end of a politically tense month – and of a fifteen-day stretch of teaching. As such, the break was welcomed (if unanticipated) by all affected; the students were elated to leave school grounds for the first time in weeks, and we were ecstatic to have the chance to catch up on lost sleep (and on the many long-term projects we’d been ignoring).
This is not to say that I don’t love teaching the kids. I do – emphatically. I have the best students imaginable. It’s just that I also appreciate my weekends. The traditional five-day workweek vs. two-day weekend balance has long provided workers across the world with a fine balance of work and rest, but this term our school has boldly discarded this time-honored system for a one that is new, innovative, and – if I hadn’t recognized it as a cogent and profound expression of postmodern artistic and philosopical ideals – for the subject, seemingly characterized by an apparent meaningless randomness. In short, the system adopted by the administration has no fixed rules. Monday through Friday tend to be the same as they always have been, unless there’s a holiday, or a special event, or a basketball competition or another such essential feature of school life. Saturday and Sunday are your wild cards; they could be any day of the week, or really any day dreamed up by the minds in the headmaster’s building. Every day in the late afternoon, a paper is put up on the notice board and the identity of the following day is fixed. Or is it? It may change come nightfall, or come morning. And this is the most striking postmodern-relativist aspect of it all: because all is perspective, no perspectives are truly valid; since every day could be any day, no days really exist. Or because every day is another day, other days are all days. Or something like that.
As such, it has become less than wise to actually plan too far ahead, as it’s difficult to know what classes one is teaching. Which has been good for my long-term projects (especially my third-year textbook, which is really coming along now) and my proclivity to play hooky in the manner of Huck Finn, minus the riverboat.
Several days ago, I decided to go on a hike in the Maixiu National Forest Park, a large and beautifully mountainous region south of Rebgong. The area is managed somewhat similarly to a remote and sparsely-forested National Forest in the States; the focus is primarily on timber and watershed conservation, with tourism a distant third on the list of priorities. As such, the region really has no facilities for visitors: there are no maps, no marked trails or attractions, and no hotels other than a tent camp which is set up every summer near a filthy hot springs. Given all this, as well as the region’s complex topography, going hiking in this area can be surprisingly adventurous. You may think that you’ll find your way to the road by descending to the river and following it downhill, but in fact the river drops precipitously into a vertical-walled gorge, forcing you to climb thousands of feet to a distant ridgeline, where you may find a yak path that leads somewhere – or so you hope. You climb to the top of a grassy peak, which seems to give rise to a ridge trending the direction you hope to travel – only to find that the ridge curves in a semicircle around a narrow bowl and ultimately leads the opposite direction. All these adventures (and more!) can be yours at the Maixiu Forest Park.
So, being me, I decided to do a long full-day hike without my Qinghai atlas, which admittedly showed the area in no great detail (as if 300 meter contour intervals and a 1:65,000-scale map would be too useful). The previous day, there had been a nasty dust storm that had kept me inside pretty much all day. Today, the winds were high, but so far little dust was visible in the air. I got in a car to Garze, a village up the Gu-chu valley where I hoped to begin my hike.
I was several miles into the middle of nowhere before I realized that I had forgotten my map. By that point, the dust had started to rise up the valleys; the upper ridges where I walked becoming islands amidst a murky cloud of particulates that looked as if it would have been more at home in Beijing. The sky above remained blue; all around, the mountains and ridges and valleys faded into a hazy yellowgray that seemed to swallow the landscape whole.
This was when I realized that I had forgotten to bring my second water bottle, as well as any food whatsoever.
Nevertheless, I decided to continue onwards and upwards to escape the dust, crossing passes and riding ridges to the tops of 4000-meter peaks from which, I’m sure, the view must be spectacular when one has the privilege of seeing it. I eventually ascended a major ridgeline to a high peak; suddenly the air cleared and the view opened up; snowdappled peaks rippled into distant rolling grassland, a wintergrey panorama, the snow quickly departing, the land not yet awakened from its hibernation, snowmelt rushing down the valleys in powerful torrents, spring in the air but not yet arrived.
And this was when I realized that if I continued much farther in the same direction, I’d end up in neighboring Gansu province, or at least in the remote town of Dowa, which is sort of a pain to get to or from. As such, it was time to head back to the main road. And being me, I decided (already dehydrated, with less than a cup of water left to me) to return by a different route than that I had taken to reach this peak. I descended into a deep, idyllic grassland valley, in which I had espied (from on high) a path leading in the approximate direction I wanted to travel. I found the path, which I shared with several horses for a while, but soon it abruptly turned around a rocky ridge and ascended steeply to a narrow gap. The trail narrowed to a baby-sheepswidth, then traversed cliffs and gullies for several miles before ending at a randomly placed nomad encampment. I was farther along, yet I had arrived in a place just as remotely nowhere that from which I’d come.
I looked around; no paths were visible in the valley, now far below where I stood – and a nasty descent. So I decided to follow a barely-existent goat trail to the ridgeline above me, where I found myself standing above a valley nearly identical to the one from which I had just come. Via a snowy muddy mess of a yakpath, I descended into the depths of the valley, where I found a family-compound-under-construction. Strangely, nobody was about, so I took what looked like the most logical path downvalley, which went up the opposite hillside to avoid a tight gorge along the river. This was where I saw wolf tracks.
The path continued along the river valley, but instead of descending to the valley floor – which I knew for (somewhat) certain eventually led to some hot springs and a road – ascended gradually to a cliffy peak on a subsidiary ridgeline, where it ended.
At this point I had been out of water for quite a while, and the dust in the air was exacerbating my thirst. Despite this, the only way out from this place, which I’d rapidly labeled Predicament Peak, was up. And as landslides had destroyed all logical routes for ascending the high ridge, turning them into extremely steep chutes of slick, loose rubble, I was forced to choose for my ascent the only narrow grassy ramp which had not fallen off the face of the earth. Which, needless to say, was a slightly harrowing experience.
But I made it, and several hours later made it down to the main road, where I had long been hoping to find liquid refreshment to soothe my aching throat. Amazingly, however, I had decided to end my adventure at the only village in the prefecture without a small store selling drinks. And there were very few cars on the road. Meaning that it was another two hours by the time I arrived back in town and ran into a store to buy three bottles of water (as the water in my apartment had been off for several days). And drank them all rapidly.
The next morning, I woke up with a nasty sunburn and a horribly sore throat. Sickness and sunburn – that’s what I get for going hiking in a duststorm.
Despite my whining, however, life is quite good here in Rebgong. I’ve been doing a lot of textbook-writing, running, in-house exercising (for those dusty days, which are relatively common in springtime here), and reading. Town seems to be loosening up as well; we’re allowed to move around freely, and we’ve seen several foreigners in the past few days! The main focus of my life for the next two months or so is unquestionably going to be thegaokao, the college entrance exam my third-year students will be taking on June 6th. This exam is not, as some suggest, the “Chinese SAT” – rather, it determines to a frightening degree the trajectory of one’s entire life. So if I begin to whine about this test in coming blog posts, forgive me: it really is that bad.
That’s it for right now. Happy Pesach (and assorted other holidays) from the only Jew in the province!