This is a long post. It’s also the first time I’ve used a slideshow; hopefully it works.
One crisp Tuesday morning in late September, I walked out of the teaching building and saw a similarly crisp new sheet of paper on the school notice board. The evening before, our school’s headmaster had alerted me to the fact that the National Day holiday, an annual seven-day break, would begin the coming Saturday. The freshly printed notice in front of my eyes, however, put forward the alternate suggestion that the holiday would start Wednesday morning at ten – less than 24 hours from the present moment.
Who to believe: the school headmaster or a cleanly printed document liberally festooned with crimson stamps and official-looking seals? Despite the headmaster’s aura of power and hauteur, we were officially released for the holiday a full four days earlier than originally expected. At the beginning of the week, in a fit of naive stupidity, I had decided to plan out all of my classes through Friday. Once again I was taught the lesson that time used to plan ahead is time wasted; that there is no such thing as fixed time or a fixed schedule. Schedules – the making of which Americans are especially talented – are nothing more than our feeble attempts to cover the underlying, temporally chaotic and random nature of the universe.
But metaphysical ruminations aside, holiday was holiday. And for me, holiday means time to travel into the countryside, time to have the above ruminations occur alongside those of actual ruminating beasts who are either incredibly stupid or the greatest philosophers the world has yet known. So the following morning, my co-teacher and I embarked on an overnight trip to Dorjedzong Gonpa རྡོ་རྗེ་རྫོང་དགོན་པ། (inexplicably called Guanxiu Si 官秀寺 in Chinese), a monastery located deep in a remote gorge. I didn’t know much about the place except that it looked beautiful in pictures, so after a quick consultation with a local friend we decided to go for it. A (somewhat) early morning car ride and several hitches later, we arrived at a remote township, the beginning of our hike.
Despite the presence of a small dirt road, the walk was beautiful. We climbed through grassland valleys to a broad, high pass before rapidly droppingdown into a deep valley where a swift river flowed in sinuous shimmerings along steep slopes lightlyforested with juniper and spruce. As evening light crimsoned the hillsides of autumnally withering grass, the entire valley was illuminated with a warm, diffuse light, the glow of a candle inside a paper bag. And then we arrived at the monastery.
Squeezed between a wall of high limestone cliffs and the confluence of two rushing rivers, the brashly golden roofs of Dorjedzong Gonpa blazed in the evening light, throwing their reflections at will across the canyon walls. We wandered into the quiet monastery, looking into several temples but (for me at least) mostly just enjoying the moment. We then set up camp in a meadow across the river which afforded a beautiful view of the monastery and gorge as the goldoranged landscape faded to amber, umber, then black.
We continued our hike to remote Dowa township the next morning, up forested hillsides, through broad green valleys and across majestically vast grasslands. The trip, though short, was enormously refreshing, for it allowed me the space to think. Isolation, at times, is the key ingredient needed to get my mind back in motion on its own terms, rather than on the terms of the school or of students (though I love them dearly). At these times, only by being far away can I come fully into myself.
But as a social animal, I also need breaks from the isolation that Rebgong seems to impose, unasked-for, upon its foreign teachers. As such, I traveled to Xining to meet friends immediately after returning from the trip. From Xining, I had not yet made any plans; I had assumed that a group of my friends would be going somewhere and that I would simply follow them.
But upon arriving in Xining, I found that nearly everyone was planning to stay in town. A small group of friends, however, would be traveling to Zeku/Tsekog with some Norwegian friends. I decided to hitch a ride to Zeku/Tsekog and from there visit a student who had repeatedly asked me to come to his home this holiday. As I looked at the map, I realized that I could make my trip into a loop and, in doing so, visit another student to pay his long-overdue summer school salary. With the appealing concept of a circumambulation of the prefecture in my head, I squeezed myself into the trunk of my friends’ SUV and headed south into the countryside.
Except we didn’t head south towards Rebgong, which I had assumed would be our route to Zeku. Rather, we drove along the westerly road leading to destinations such as Guide and Golog. As I had planned to drop some stuff at my apartment and pick up my tent, it was a bit surprising to suddenly discover that I was saddled with a huge bag of clean laundry for a five-day trip into a comparatively rough and remote region.
I also didn’t count on stopping at the tourist sites on the way to Zeku; I had stupidly assumed that my trip would be relatively fast and direct. But the stops, in fact, were quite enjoyable; they took me places I otherwise wouldn’t have gone and gave me the opportunity to stretch my legs after long hours in the back of the van. We stopped in Guide to see the surprisingly crystalline and well-preserved Yellow River flowing through the burningly yellow birch forests which carpeted the valley below high paleyellow cliffs of crumbling sand. We stopped at a nearby hot springs, where hundreds of Tibetans from all parts of Amdo came to cure their illnesses in scalding water that seeped from the cliffs above. We stopped briefly in different towns to stock up on supplies, and otherwise simply enjoyed the landscape; vast wintergrey grasslands reaching towards snowy peaks; mirage-like stretches of sandy desert – vast, towering dunes incongruously surrounded by pools of water and groves of birches, colored iridescent by the changing seasons. We traveled over several passes before suddenly finding ourselves in the small town of Wangjia. My friends were to visit a home nearby, and as such dropped me on the highway to continue traveling onwards to Zeku town.
I waited for nearly two hours before a car stopped to pick me up. After a series of several rides, I found myself in the small town of Ningxiu/Nyinshuk, where I got out of the car only to be greeted by a first-year student. I looked at my roster: over twenty of my students came from this town. This was going to be an interesting time.
Soon, after my first-year student’s conversational vocabulary was exhausted, I decided to pull out the frisbee. First it was just me and a few students; before long, everyone in town came to their doorways to see what was going on – and then joined in. The game became a townwide activity; it took over a 100-meter section of the main street, and those who weren’t playing were watching, commenting, drinking beers by the roadside. Before long, however, it was getting dark, and I realized that I wouldn’t be getting onward travel to Zeku that evening. I ended up at the hotel where the rest of the crew that I had traveled to Wangjia with would be staying. This was not hard; there is only one hotel in Ningxiu. By the time I went out to get dinner, however, all of the restaurants were closed. Such is life.
The next morning it was snowing. Big, fat flakes were in the process of plastering everything in sight. I squeezed back into the trunk and off we went to Zeku. After several detours along snowy roads, we arrived around midday; the others were heading to Rebgong, so we parted ways below a slowly clearing sky that revealed the spectacular snowshellacked grasslands surrounding town. Gawking at the stunningly rapid change in the landscape, I made my way to Henan town to spend the night.
The following morning, I got on a bus to the Yellow River to find it already occupied by a sheep. The floor was smeared with sheep droppings and the rest of the bus was crowded with boxes of soft drinks and instant noodles, but I attempted to desensitize my nose to the stench as we made our way down the long, bumpy road paralleling the beautiful looping arabesques of the Ze-chu river. As the road continued, the surrounding landscape grew increasingly beautiful until it couldn’t become any more beautiful anymore. We had reached somewhere around the point of maximum beauty, where the local deities had seemingly decided that human beings could only endure a certain amount of beauty, above which no more should or could be added, when the bus suddenly came upon a squat, dumpy little town, half built and half derelict, where, amidst the simultaneously glorious and squat surroundings, one of my favorite students was waiting for me.
I know that, as a teacher, I shouldn’t have favorites among my students. But as most teachers I know will tell you, it’s nearly impossible not to; all you can do is hide it (which I think I can do pretty well at this point). And in any class, this kid would be a winner. So it was a complete delight, after more than a year of semi-planned but aborted visits, after hours of jostling through the countryside, to pull into this tiny town in the deepest wilds of Henan on a bus stained and stinking with sheep droppings and piss and cigarettes and receive the warmest greeting and most enthusiastic smile I’ve ever experienced. I’m not going to add detail, as this is already a long post, but needless to say we had an awesome couple of days before I reluctantly returned to the Henan county town.
But not for long; though I ran into a couple of friends on the street, I kept the encounters brief, as I had a schedule to keep. I was to meet my friend Elizabeth in Labrang/Xiahe, nearly 200km distant along questionable roads, by nightfall. And due an irregular bus schedule (one every two or three days), I had to hitch.
I walked all the way along the eastern road out of town, remarking on the unusual lack of traffic, before I realized that a bridge was closed to cars. As such, all traffic had been redirected onto a bypass outside of town. I wandered through open grasslands to the bypass, where I was quickly picked up by a friendly father-daughter duo in a surprisingly modern car. We cruised through open grasslands below snowily jagged peaks to the town of Serlung, where we parted ways and I began the most difficult part of my journey.
Below is a catalogue of my hitching experiences upon the subsequent stretch of road:
- Walking for a few kilometers, until…
- Picked up by a massive truck carrying sand and gravel to distant Zoige དཛོ་དགེ། (Sichuan) county. We had a delightful conversation until we hit the border of Gansu province, where the road immediately transformed from a passable two-laner with occasional gravel stretches to the strangest roadway I had ever seen. While the road was perfectly paved, the pavement was regularly perforated by a moonscape of the largest potholes I had ever seen. Imagining regular potholes will not do justice to the road; picture massive, irregular meteorite craters surrounded by a Minnesota-flat plateau of pavement. Needless to say, progress was negligible; never faster than my long-run pace, at times we slowed to something approximating the speed of a young Tibetan man strutting snaillike along a street to display his new haircut to any and all who will look. Which was when I made the mistake of getting impatient. Upon seeing several small cars passing us at higher velocity, I apologetically asked the driver if I could get out of the truck, because I was in a hurry and needed to travel at a faster rate. He agreed, and we parted amicably. I walked up the road for several minutes until…
- I was picked up by a small limegreen car with Golog licenseplates, crammed to the gills with a large family going to Tsu (Hezuo). The driver was friendly at first, and then demanded 100 kuai for me to stay in his car. I disagreed and was almost kicked out until we settled on 50 kuai to Amchok. I assumed he knew where Amchok was, but when, after less than fifteen kilometers, we reached the next small town (Hongke), he demanded I leave the car and pay 50 kuai – despite the fact that Amchok was still more than sixty kilometers distant. He then opened the trunk and threw my bags to the ground. As I didn’t want to raise a ruckus in a small Tibetan town, I decided to just pay the man and write it down as a bad experience. I walked disgruntledly to the crossroads, where the roads to Labrang and Luqu split; despite the glorious autumn weather, I scowled at all and sundry who had the misfortune of passing by. But from here, my luck was to change.
- A classic black Volkswagen Santana, driven by a kindly man who looked like the identical twin of one of my Xining students, picked me up and ferried me to nearby Kecai Township. Upon arriving, I got into a deep conversation with a picnicking Tibetan family and was so absurdly proud of my improvingly negligeable Amdo language skills that I almost missed my next ride – which turned out to be a doozy.
- A large family in a “Modern” (Hyundai, which is translated as 现代/modern in Chinese) sedan took me the nearly ninety kilometers from Kecai to Labrang in one go – and refused any and all forms of payment, even my attempts to throw money at them as they drove away. My hitching done and a ride to Labrang secure, I simply sat back and enjoyed the beautiful grasslands – as well as the car’s inhabitants. While everyone had a good sense of humor, the star of the show was one-and-a-half-year-old Tsering, who for some reason had developed an extreme (if temporary) hatred of his aunt. Continually punching her in the face, he would scream out for his father as everyone in the car (including the aunt) laughed uproariously. This continued for the duration of the nearly two-hour trip to Labrang. Other interesting events included being asked for directions by a Han family from Chengdu (I was the only one who could respond to the immaculately dressed woman walking over to our car at a high mountain pass, saying “NI HAO” as if speaking to hamsters attempting to learn Chinese; everyone else was stupefied) and watching, incredulously, the tourist circus at the Sangke Grasslands outside of Labrang (“people are paying to ride horses??” the family in the car asked repeatedly in disbelief).
Finally arriving in Labrang, I met up with Elizabeth and (this being the National Day Holiday) found an absurdly priced dorm bed in which to sleep. The next morning, we were off to Dowa, where we met several students and had a great meal in a student’s family’s tent. From there, it was back to Rebgong – and, eventually work.
This was an absurdly long post. But, given certain stressful events occurring during this past week of school (of which I will write shortly), it has been helpful for me to remember this Holiday of Champions, and the experiences of escape and adventure. For those of you who have made it through, I applaud your patience. For I don’t write such a blog with the interests of readers (or readability) in mind; I don’t think about word counts or clashing subjects or structure (unless I feel super organized or ambitious). Rather, I simply write because I need to write. I write to vent, to get out my feelings onto proverbial paper (yes, I’m a Luddite…), to help me feel like I’m part of something bigger when I feel alone, to help me make sense of my experiences – and of myself.