One Summer Afternoon

Picture time high on top of Amnye Taklung, RG

Picture time high on top of Amnye Taklung, RG

Sorry for the lack of recent updates – I’ve either been busy or in places without internet. I’ll try to do better. Also, forgive the relative lack of pictures…more will come.

It was hot. Even if the mercury failed to display an impressively high reading, the heat radiating from the fiery sun marooned amidst a mercilessly blue sky was enough to give rise to the sensation of being trapped inside a stove, everything surrounding you radiating heat as if transformed into flames. There was no shelter; the grassy gorge had few trees, and no houses were visible. It would be hours yet before the sun dipped below the looming redrock mountains to the west; cool respite was, as of now, far away.

We stood  by the roadside with our broken-down motorcycle. The wire which previously connected the accelerator to the gas – apparently the 油门线 – had broken not long before while we were attempting to make our way up a frighteningly steep, switchbacking dirt road carved into a crumbling sandstone cliff. We had been on our way to a summer school site in a remote, mountaintop village; now, with a motorcycle not quite able to move under its own power, it looked like we wouldn’t get there at all.

The plan was simple: leaving our home around midday, we would drive the motorcycle some thirty kilometers to the village in which our summer school was located. As we were leaving, one of the students called to tell us that his brother would meet us in a nearby town to show us the way to the village. He needed to come home himself, said the student, as there was a family emergency of sorts.

Fine. We made our way to the town and called the student’s brother. He said that he would be arriving shortly. Soon, a man astride a motorcycle made eye contact with us, then began waving his hands up the road in the direction we needed to go. He gestured at us, then again up the road. We decided he was our student’s brother, and followed him out of town.

We got to a major road junction, where the man stopped. He then tried to gesture and speak, but only wordless sounds came out of his mouth. We tried to speak to him, but to no avail. He was deaf and dumb, and was trying to tell us something – but whatever it was he wanted to say remained incomprehensible.

Soon, he pulled out his phone and started showing us pictures of thangka painters, of monastery, of people dancing. Wondering if this really was our student’s brother, we called the student – who assured us that his brother’s auditory and oral capacities were quite intact. Embarrassed, we realized that this man was simply a nice guy who, thinking we were lost tourists, had led us to a village in which a famous festival was occurring. We thanked him profusely, communicating as best we could, and he sped off happily.

We continued waiting at the sunbeaten intersection. A car full of elegantly dressed tourists stopped and asked us the way to Zoige – a county in northern Sichuan perhaps nine to ten hours away. I told them that they would get there, eventually, but it would take some time. We waited some more. Tibetan pilgrims stopped to ask directions. Some kids on the nearby bridge chatted aimlessly, carefully examining us for anything strange worth serving as a topic of conversation. The air was still, stifling, solid; while the student’s cousin said he was near, he remained absent from the scene. We decided to continue on.

We rolled upvalley through ripening fields of barley and wheat, past ochre mountainsides and whitewashed temples, past small shops in front of which sat old men, slowly smoking cheap cigarettes as they discussed the affairs of their villages. We passed into a narrow gorge lined by towering sandstone pinnacles – and then, suddenly, saw a narrow dirt road switchbacking up the opposite side of the valley, monastery buildings perched atop a crumbling cliff above. This was our road.

We had expected pavement of some kind, or at least a reasonably gentle grade. Instead, the road rocketed upwards in steep zigzags of loose gravel. We made it partway up the first switchback before the motorcycle’s engine suddenly stopped.

We tried to start the engine, but the motorcycle didn’t seem interested in movement. We tried a few more times, and finally coaxed the motorcycle into moving for about 100 meters before once again losing power. This happened again and again until, about 400 meters above the valley floor, the accelerator handle (a handle that you twist around to feed gas to the engine) suddenly lost any semblance of tension – and thus any ability to provide our machine with gas.

I quickly braked to avoid sliding downhill. We now knew that we were in a bit of a spot. We had a broken motorcycle four hundred meters up the mountainside from nowhere. Needless to say, we weren’t making it to the summer school today. We pushed the bike up to the road and sat, shelterless, in the intensely simmering heat, drinking our remaining water and thinking up schemes to get out of our predicament.

Eventually, everything worked itself out: I hitched upvalley to the next town, where I found a student to track down the region’s primary motorcycle mechanic, who, though absent from the town motorcycle shop due to a job he had to complete in a nearby town, after finishing his job and eating dinner with friends, stopped by the side of the road to give our motorcycle a temporary fix, before refusing any payment whatsoever.

As we motorcycled slowly back to town, I marveled at the fact that adventure – and the full spectrum of accompanying emotions – could be encapsulated in an experience lasting a few short hours, how sentiments of pure joy transformed themselves into disappointment, then boredom, then exhausted closure. Do we need to venture to the far reaches of the earth to find the new and unexpected, or can the farthest reaches of this wondrous world come into our lives on a daily basis, wherever we find ourselves? Do we need to seek out adventure, or – if we are simply open to the possibilities – will adventure seek us out itself, provide us with those experiences of wonder and fear and joy and unanticipated depth of feeling, the experiences that can make our life rich beyond all imagining? Instead of finding disappointment in goals unattained – we never reached our summer school in the village, after all – should we simply give thanks for those experiences, however crazy and random and wonderfully fulfilling or unfulfilling they may be – that take us and shake us around and shape us, for better or for worse, into who we are?

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One Response to One Summer Afternoon

  1. Pingback: Getting to Langmusi: Further Travels in Tibetan Qinghai and Gansu (and Why You Should Never Join Us On A Road Trip) - Fiona Reilly

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