This post is going to be a quick update about the rest of my summer; more interesting and/or philosophical posts will come soon, if not necessarily at the same time (or in the same serving).
When I left off in the most recent post, I had just finished a half-kora of Amnye Machen with several friends. After catching a car down a road that would be labeled “adventurous” even by the most laconic of New Englanders, we arrived in the delightful crossroads town of Huashixia, where we eventually caught a night bus to Xining. As there were no seats, we were given small stools which conveniently (for the pocketbook of the bus driver) fit within the confines of the aisle.
Rather than subject myself to undue torture, I got off the bus slightly past midnight at the Xinghai intersection. Stumbling into the grasslands, I found a flat spot free of animal dung and, after setting up my tent, fell asleep almost instantly.
The next morning, I caught a ride into the pleasant county town of Xinghai. I had not simply stumbled exhaustedly off the bus at a random point; I had a reason for being here. Five of my students were teaching summer school to primary and middle school students, and I was in Xinghai for a site visit. I spent the morning visiting the school before I began to think about how I would get back to Xining. My host realized that the last bus for Xining left at 2pm; I ran up the main street to the bus stop at 1:30 and jumped into the bus interior, sure that I would have a seat.
“Meiyou,” said the bus driver in the obnoxious snarl of one who controls what you want and will not let you have it. “We don’t have any seats. Get off the bus.”
“But I’ll sit in the aisle”, I said. “I’ll pay full fare.” The man behind me, also seatless, nodded his head in agreement.
“You can’t sit in the aisle”, the man said. “It’s against the law.”
After nearly twenty minutes of pressuring from the driver, we reluctantly got off the bus and began looking for alternative modes of transport. Luckily, a woman across the street agreed to take us to Xining in a private car for 70 kuai apiece, only 20 kuai more than the bus fare. We happily agreed and within five minutes were speeding merrily through the vast grasslands in a Xiningesque direction.
Two hours later, the car pulled to a halt on a random street in the prefectural seat of Chabcha. “Everyone out”, the woman said.
“But you said you’d take us to Xining,” my companion said.
“You only have to pay me 30 kuai,” our driver said. “You can get a ride to Xining for 40 kuai from any of the cars on this street.”
Disgruntled, we unloaded our bags and, approaching a band of drivers on the opposite sidewalk, inquired about the fare to Xining.
“Sixty kuai,” they said in unison. We looked around for the woman who had driven us from Xinghai but she was gone.
“She used to be my girlfriend,” said one of the men, “but I dumped her. Xinghai women are unreliable.”
Go figure. After much haggling, we were able to negotiate a ride to Xining for 50 kuai a pop. On the way, I was cross-examined by a curious Han-Chinese guy about gun laws in America. “You are so lucky,” he said. “You can buy any kind of gun there so easily. If I was there, I’d own so many guns.”
As I later discovered, that conversation was coincidentally occurring at approximately the same time as the terrible Colorado movie theater shootings. Regardless, I fed the man years of Philadelphia murder statistics and other horror stories, but he remained firm for the duration of the ride. Needless to say, I was relieved to finally get out of the car in Xining.
I remained in Xining for quite a while, mostly because my father was on his way to visit. He arrived on the 25th and we spent a few nice days in Xining and its surroundings before attending friend Kim’s delightful wedding party, where we met her family and got to hang out and dance with friends. The wedding itself was nice, but what was truly fantastic was to see how happy both Kim and Kunchok were the entire time. Seeing that kind of joy radiating from both of their faces made the experience truly amazing. Using words can make powerful emotions and impressions feel vapid, corny or surficial; however, what was in evidence that night was that truly profound type of happiness, what the Chinese would call 幸福 (xingfu), a depth of joy which makes one proud and excited and fulfilled and eager to be alive and in this moment.
The next morning, my father and I took off for Rebgong, where we stayed a couple of days in my apartment and wandered the surrounding area before taking off to Zeku and Henan counties to visit schools and see a horse-racing festival. But little did we imagine when we got in a car that morning that the 100km journey to Zeku would take approximately five hours. About twenty kilometers upstream from Rebgong, the river had washed out the road, causing an hour and a half-long delay on both sides. Once the roadway had been reestablished, cars and trucks pushed in from both sides, creating a nasty traffic jam which took nearly another hour to resolve. Then, after traveling upstream for another fifteen kilometers, we came across a truck whose back tires had slid off a temporary bridge over a river. While the rear of the truck hovered precariously over the void, the remainder of the vehicle was tilted in such a way as to block the entire roadway. This time, we didn’t wait for the situation to resolve itself; our driver decided to use a long-disused highway bridge about 100m upstream. We were soon on our way and eventually found ourselves in the frigid grasslands of Zeku county.
We had already committed to visiting schools that day, so after arriving in Zeku town we immediately jumped in another vehicle to the unfortunately-named town of Hor. The ride was mercifully without incident and we soon found ourselves surrounded by primary school students and herded by four of my third-year students into dark classrooms surrounded by metalframe bunkbeds. We watched my students teach, visited (and did the obligatory photo shoot) with the students and briefly met the headmaster, who expressed his enthusiasm and support for the program. Seeing the solid organization and support the school had was immensely gratifying, as this was the summer school program that had been set up at the last minute – and completely at the initiative of one of my students. The student in question, usually the class clown/trickster/etc., had done a surprisingly fantastic job of creating a viable program – something truly amazing to see. The visit was great, if a bit too short; we had to visit another school on the way back to Zeku town, so we couldn’t stay long.
On Main Street Hor (not an actual name…), we met up with several other students who helped us find a ride to remote Odzatan (sp?), a summer nomad encampment where one of our first-year students was teaching at a community-organized summer school. Arriving at the encampment, no buildings were visible; white canvas and black yak-hair tents dotted the frigidly remote grasslands. But ahead, a corridor of blueuniformed students were aligned in front of three small canvas tents, holding khatag (silk scarves) in their hands as a sign of welcome. Our student led us between the lines of students; we rapidly accumulated khatag around our necks as we were led towards the tents. It was 7pm; the students had waited two hours after class in the freezing cold to greet us.
And we were glad we came, for this was a truly amazing visit. Approximately six to eight teachers, including another of Brooke’s former students, taught five classes comprising 105 primary and middle-school students in three small tents. There were no blackboards or books; the school district had donated notebooks and pencils for the students. Nevertheless, the teachers (and students) were doing a fantastic job. Our student, Samir, explained how he copied our teaching styles in class (!) and incorporated different kinds of activities into his lesson plans (pretty amazing for having received no teacher training whatsoever). We met with the students, some of whom were able to hold basic conversations in English – something that is absolutely stunning considering the learning environment (news flash: one of the students from the summer school is coming to our program this year!). Needless to say, the visit was a mindaltering experience; even before leaving, Brooke and I began talking about funding this program in the future. The only low point: my camera fell out of my jacket on the way to the school. I abused that camera horrible; I can only hope its life has improved with its new owner.
Returning to Zeku town, we met up with three friends before traveling to Henan the next morning for the Nadam (那达木) festival, a Tibetan-Mongolian horseracing/singing/dancing/partying extravaganza that is the region’s biggest festival of the year. But for us, the festival was not the biggest attraction; the best part of being in Henan was getting to see some great students. We had picnics, hung out at the festival grounds (with literally tens of thousands of other people around), and wandered around town together. It was a delightful time – except that my father fell nastily ill and, after a few days, we had to beat a hasty retreat to Rebgong.
After several days of recovery, my father decided it was time to try something remote. I suggested a hike in the Dowa-Maixiu region but he continued to push for something farther away. “Fine,” I said, and booked bus tickets to Yushu.
My father, of course, loved the sleeper bus. The lack of ventilation, the smoke, the intermittent phone conversations conducted at top volume and the rest of the experience were just the ticket for someone recovering from illness, and he developed a nasty cough soon after disembarking from a primordially slow outbound trip (over 18 hours!). We quickly took our leave of Yushu town in favor of the preternaturally spectacular countryside to the south. We planned to hike into some high mountains from a valley near Xialaxiu township, but upon seeing some enticing valleys just west of the airport we decided to change plans and simply head off into the wilds.
What we found was a spectacularly beautiful region of rushing streams, emerald meadows, and opalescently turquoise lakes teardropped beneath jaggedly cliffy peaks. We spent three days traveling up a valley, over a high 5000-meter (16400-foot) pass and down into a hidden, lakefilled valley which, after much twisting and turning, dropped us at the entrance to the hot springs valley of which I have (twice) previously written. We took a day trip up to the hot springs, which, unfortunately, was filled with freely defecating yaks. We took our leave and hiked downhill rather than bathe in the dungfilled waters.
We spent the last night above the Princess Wencheng temple to ease travel out of Yushu. The next morning, we hitched into Yushu with a friendly young couple from a village that had been at the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake. I dragged my father around Jyekundo town for awhile to take pictures of its continuing transformation. During a visit last October, streets were packed, dusty soil and there were few buildings in evidence. Now, paved streets are lined with massive construction sites; schools and apartments that would not be out of place in southern California (apart from the “T$bet@n detailing”) spring incongruously out of vacant lots where stray yaks, sheep and goats graze on piles of trash and food waste. And as of yet, though institutions, government buildings and monasteries are rising like hyperactive phoenixes from the ashes, little actual housing has been built.
Returning to Xining, I met up with the new VIA volunteers (in Xining for training) before seeing my father off at the airport and bringing the volunteers down to Rebgong for practice teaching (on our kids!). Brooke had organized a summer school for the new VIA volunteers to get teaching practice and for our kids to get more English – a plan which worked splendidly due to Brooke’s hard work and help from some fantastic graduates of our program. It was great to see the kids, though I was so itching to teach that I could barely watch classes. We had some fun afternoon ultimate frisbee sessions (the kids have gotten pretty good!) and an evening of dumpling-making at my apartment before summer school disbanded. The kids went home and the volunteers, with me in tow, went back to Xining for Chinese class.
The rest of the summer was a chaotic back-and-forth between Rebgong and Xining, trips necessary to procure my visa (which is now procured!) and find an important document which I had stupidly left at a random Xining copy shop. Also, I simply wanted to see friends. Devin and Sarah arrived back in Xining, wedding rings on fingers and conjugal bliss attained (not that the conjugal bliss seemed much different than the pre-conjugal type). The one additional “vacation” was a trip to Zeku on a certain two-wheeled motorized vehicle. We visited students for several days, staying in Zeku at night and riding out on seriously frightening “roads” into the grasslands by day to the remote encampments where our students live. The vehicle had major problems every day, all of which were fortunately fixable. Until we were returning from Hor and an essential part broke. With storm clouds looming overhead and thunder booming in the distance, we chained up the vehicle in a roadside ditch and hitched the 45 kilometers into Zeku.
The next day, we returned with students to find the vehicle gone. Disappeared into thin air. A fitting end for the trip.
Now, school has started. Andrew, the new teacher at our program, is in Hong Kong due to visa troubles, so I’ve been here holding down the fort by myself. This would not be a major deal if not for the repeated issues that have come up with the admins over the past few days, necessitating almost constant meetings with headmasters and others (in addition to the 30-class teaching schedule).
But enough whining. Even though things are a bit crazy, I’ve found time to write an excessively long and boring blog post. I promise the next one will be more literary or interesting – I haven’t yet decided which. Though it’s been awhile, I plan to get back on the one-blog-post-weekly train this semester. For truly summer is over; it’s time to get back to work.