(August 22, 2015) And that my friends was China. A trip made special by the best traveling companion a father could hope for. Thanks to all who read along and happy trails yourselves.
(Aug 22, 2015) The Great Wall is well named. When all its branches are factored in it stretches 13,170 miles. That’s a lot of wall. It was built, ignored, rebuilt, and re-ignored over a parade of centuries and dynasties. More than 1 million gave their lives for its construction. It’s purpose was to keep out the trouble that always seemed to come from the north. For that it was impractical. A concentrated attacking army will always overwhelm isolated wall garrisons. Through force, threat or bribery. No, the wall succeeded elsewhere. As that of a radar and an early telephone. Manned beacon towers were placed every couple of kilometers. A structured system of smoke and flag signals in place. When a threat was recognized, the message was sent down the line. Tower to tower. In that way a warning could be sent at the speed of 800 miles a day. In other words, the great tripwire.
We spent time with the wall at both it’s ends. In the West lay Jiayuguan Fort. The last bastion of an empire. Beyond its walls desolation. Here persons in empire disfavor were sent. Flushed into exile by simply opening and closing a door. Their survival chances limited.
In the east we jumped on a bus that made its way to Mutianyu from Beijing. Here 3 miles of wall masonry had been restored for the tourist trade. Regardless it is magic to follow as it piggybacks along the crest of a mountain range. Put in the sweat and you will arrive at the end of restoration. Keep going for a primer on what 400 years of nature’s conquest is capable of.
At a high point I stopped and gave the wall a good eye soak. It made little sense to me. The mountain slopes were steep. Why put a wall on top of such a natural barrier? No invading army could possibly pass it summits. Why go to the effort? My theory is ego. Let’s call it the Everest theory. A climber makes it to within 25 feet of Everest’s summit but must turn back. Though the climber made it to 29,000 feet the climb would be seen as a failure to many. Because it wasn’t complete. The Great Wall succumbs to the same logic. To be complete and thus great it needed to be continuous. No matter how ludicrous the terrain. The demands of ego dictated a wall without break. Much to my appreciation.
Eventually the wall was rendered obsolete by the invading Europeans. Who rudely arrived by sea, on beaches behind the wall. Some curiosities. The wall is invisible from space, contrary to the popular opposite opinion. Marco Polo never mentioned the wall in his travelogue. Which to me questions the credibility of this entire journey. And finally, China’s massive Internet censorship program. Which bars Google, Facebook, Instagram and most articles critical of China to name a few. It’s official name? “The great firewall.” Still trying to keep the outside out.
(Aug 16, 2015) 10 observations (which might be inaccurate).
1. The vast majority of the taxis run on natural gas.
2. The method of tracking foreigners movements is clever. When you check in to a hotel it is entered into a national police database by the hotel clerk. When you check out the same process. You can’t check in to a new hotel until your previous check out has been noted in the computer.
3. Han Chinese (92% of all Chinese) can only have one child by law. If the next generation husband and wife were both from one child families they can have two children. Ethnic minorities can have as many children as they want.
4. A crosswalk is the Chinese symbol for a target. Arrows come from 360°. The bull’s-eye is the pedestrian.
5. 95% of relationships between a Chinese and a foreigner are between a Chinese woman and a foreign male.
6. 60% of Chinese males smoke while only 3% of females do. No smoking signs are only for decoration.
7. A line is not a straight thing leading away from what is being waited for. Rather it is a surge from any angle possible to get to what is being waited for. The more physical contact the better organized the line is.
8. Every youth hostel has a dog or cat in residence, the uglier it is the more time a 12-year-old must spend with it. To the tune of hours. It is a patience Boot Camp.
9. Turn on the television and chances are you will be watching a World War II drama. A complicated time in China. The Japanese, the nationalists under Chiang Kai shack and the communists under Chairman Mao we’re fighting each other and each other. Regardless the drama will play out along these lines. The Chinese were heroes and self-sacrificing. The Japanese incompetent. Contrary to popular history.
10. Many, many Chinese cars have red ribbons tied to each wheel as well as the sideview mirrors. These ribbons effectively ward off the bad luck of car crashes.
(Aug 18, 2015) Staying in the yurt of a kazak family for a few days. Formally nomads now settled in a village by order of the government. The yurt on the ridges above Tianchi lake. A stunning body of water now drowning in mass tourism. The yurt was enough away from all that.
We sat with the family on a raised eating platform which doubled as their bed. The yurt plan included three squares a day. A guest is family. So we ate like one. All circled the tray that was placed at our center. Taking food communally with fingers. On this day the meal was a boiled sheep over 3 inch thick noodles. The sheep was whole minus its hide. Legs, head, innards and hooves. Dad picked up the skull and carved off the cheek. And handed it to me. I ate it. Then he pulled off the ear. Again he offered it to me. I blinked. Then to Fumiko. She demurred. So mom popped it in her mouth and had at it. It looked to be a challenging chew. Dad stayed at the skull. The eyes he didn’t offer but kept for himself. The brains he split with his son. They were black with yellow synapses. The daughter seemed surprised that the son was honored with half the brains.
I focused on the meat and fat. Which there were equal proportions of and no desire to separate. Eating large pieces of pure fat is novel to me. The innards were indentifyingly confusing. So I ate them without selection in great quantities. Along with the noodles saturated in the animals grease. The bowled drink was a broth made from the animals juices. Dad plucked various choice bits and handed them to me shouting “kazak style”. I ate from his hand. Mom was all encouragement. Ji, Ji (eat, eat) every time we slowed. A first in my life, to be embarrassed by my limited eating capacity.
The meal went on for a long time. The family good with each other’s company. Dad grabbed a foreleg. He bit the joint off. Clean. Then split the femur length wise with a knife. He shared the marrow with Fumiko. She pronounced it fruity. By the time dad finished with the skull there was nothing but calcium and teeth. Gradually the goat itself was reduced to the same. I recognized a respect to the animal itself. If you’re going to kill and eat an animal, then eat it all. Every possible calorie. I thought of the west. How far we are removed from an animal when it is eaten. Then I got to thinking about vegetarianism…
Alot. As we spent the next 48 hours simultaneously vomiting and shitting.
(July 16, 2015) Lots of Gods. The town is thick with their spread. Taoists, Confucianists, Capitalists, Buddhists, Jews, Christians and Muslims. Neighbors within blocks. The graceful roofs sheltering their Deities pimple the cubist horrorscape that is the modern Chinese city. Their houses of worship left alone to look backwards. As if the developers hedged every bet at their walls, just in case one of the outfits called it right.
I looked around for faith. Something I’ve never captured when it comes to these Gods. How much smoother would life be if God faith was a companion? All explainable with a simple God reference.
Thought interrupted. “Daddy what is Buddhism?” I go deep for an answer and come up shallow. “It’s the belief that nothing matters because all is impermanent. That we should be detached and not crave things. That we should live in the moment because the past and future do not matter. And some other stuff.” Maybe not too shallow.
“That makes no sense. Stuff matters and I like things. And by the time I say something the moment is past.”
12-year-old checkmate. I weakly abdicate parental responsibility and rush away from any defense. “I’m with you Fly.”
I take another stab. “Maybe that’s Buddhism Fumiko. The person who carved that lived in the present for 58 years.” “Sounds kind of boring but I guess Buddhism’s OK. I especially like it’s bellies.”
(July 10, 2015) The growled opera of a hundred chanting monks stilled our walk. In the exhausted rain of an overstretched typhoon. Us perched high on the fortified city wall that kept so many heathens in their proper neighborhood. The shadowed monastery snuggled it’s lower bulwark. Surrounded by trees in whose branches locals hid from the swordsman of the Imperial Japanese army. 300,000 of their brethren lost that particular game of hide and seek. We strained for sight of shaved heads. Echoes of prayers climbed from the monastery. Our wall breathed the chants in return. For how many centuries had these lovers whispered back and forth? We voyuered on, content in the wet.
(July 10, 2015) The canal town charmed. It’s narrow stone alleys delivered commerce to buildings long architecturally forgotten. Period men in conical hats propelled their boat oars with a nifty hand twist. Atmosphere drizzled. The locals had long ago tuned into all this. All was on our offer. All at half price. In the fish nibble foot massage tanks two fish died after consuming toxic detritus under my toenail.
Enough, for me anyway. “Come on Fly.”
“Where we going?”
I picked a pathway heading away from the canals. With strides tourism snapped back at the end of its leash. Life returned unprettily. Building techniques declined. Chickens. Laundry. “Daddy what are we looking for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how we are we going to find it?”
“I’ve been trying to figure that out for a long time.”
A pause. Quiet. Then she reached for my hand. I took hers. And we kept going.
(July 10, 2015) The floorboards of our room in the Astor House Hotel once resembled ship decking. Tight and slick with the oil of a 1000 feet. Since 1860 I heard said. The first telephone in China answered here. The first bulb shone.
Einstein took tea in the lobby, his mind at rest. A truism, time is an onslaught. Outside the humidity still feels brushed on like paint. But inside there is machined air. The Astors floorboards loosen and shrink in this new Ice Age. Revealing in their newly exposed seams the funeral dust of those thousand guests.
(July 10, 2015) A six week trip to China. Without itinerary or destination. Companioned by my 12-year-old daughter variously known as Fumiko or Fly. A few stories and photos from the journey to family and friends. The idea being not to get rusty in the written word department. As I am in the midst of writing a book to be called “The Death Q” which chronicles a 750 mile hike/trail I hope to open up near Death Valley. So I’d jot down a few short stories about China and call it a day.
Till my friend Cirina Catania caught wind of my plans. Cirina has faith in the beauty of the Internet. She proselytizes powerfully. This website “Stories from Steve” is essentially her creation. Without it my PCT through hike in 2013 would be undocumented and well into the process of memory deep fade. Her idea was to post my China dispatches here on “Stories from Steve.” I couldn’t find any harm in that. So here they are. I hope there is entertainment in at least a few of them.