Part of Your World

It’s very bizarre, the things that pull you together, and make you laugh out loud, and bring you that strong nostalgic tang of home.

The aspect I remember most is the unrelenting, limitless cold.

Walking around on those – what do you call them? – oh, stilettos.

We’d been in country for six months, and were all together again for the first time. It was just good. I remember lots of things from those two weeks – the lovely blue spark of static electricity from the dryness of the air in my single (heated!) room. Playing cards and curling noodles. Steaming, street-smoked sweet potatoes. Black ice and bonfires. We had one weekend there, in the north. Perhaps 20? of us decided to take a trip up near the Tibetan border. I remember that rickety little bus with no heating bouncing over the ice-slicked, pothole-pocked dirt road perilously close to a precipitous drop of thousands of meters. Guard rails? We don’t need no stinkin’ guard rails.

What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand?

Oh, Xia’he. Was it only 6 hours away? Gritty streets; coal-dusted, sun-darkened faces. Children begging on the one main tourist strip and temples so large it took hours to navigate the perimeters, especially if you paused to spin every prayer wheel you passed. Every single outer wall was lined with them, enormously heavy metallic cylinders on squeaking rotaries, intricately carved with Buddhist symbols, creaking eerily in ethereal, fantastic diminished fifths while spinning your prayers off to the heavens. I imagined them curling up from the pinnacle of the wheels like thin grey smoke. Did the Gods get contact highs from our prayers?

Surrounded by forested hills with one spookily bare hill in the center – a sacred place?

Momos – fantastic little pockets of steamed meat, lamb probably. Gansu’s meat and starch sat like home in my Midwestern stomach.

I don’t remember much music, beyond a bad karaoke bar with sketchy, scary mafia-ish owners, nor do I remember smells, and only a few faint tastes tinge my thoughts of Xia’he.

But the mind-numbing cold – that pervades all. We commandeered an entire hostel that night – the only one in town, I think. Hard wooden pallets topped with prohibitively heavy quilts – gloriously heavy quilts.

At the foot of our double room was a coal stove.

They lit it for us when night fell early in the northern city, and we closed the door to try and retain a bit of heat. In Animal Dreams, Kingsolver writes about being so cold that noses chipped against one another like flint – I know what she means.

Ready to know what the people know – ask them my questions and get some answers; what’s a fire, and why does it –  what’s the word? – burn?

They came by early the next morning for me. You stayed, I think, tried to give a bit back, never at ease in a snapshot of culture. There were just a few of us – Carl, Rick, a couple others I can’t remember – squeezing into a tiny van at 4 in the morning. My toes were already blue beneath two layers of cotton socks and thin white Keds. It wasn’t a problem for me in Chongqing.

They dropped us off in the grasslands, somewhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours away from the village. They only spoke a little Mandarin; we sort of hoped they’d come back. It was beautiful, and pristine, with a kind of predawn stillness literally frozen in place. The grasslands were terribly flat, but every corner of horizon rose in shades of brown ridges of bald mountain faces.

The sun took a while to rise.

The boys went off somewhere together – besides the one road and the bit of fence that designated the drop-off point, there was no real destination. I walked down instead of up. I wanted to get lost in the valleys. I wanted to be alone. I half wanted to freeze to death.

It’s an odd and surreal feeling to walk in waist-high reeds and grasses without tick-ridden terror. I watched the sun rise pale and pink, filtered through the prisms of frozen tears in the valley.

When the choice presented to move or freeze in place, I rose and felt the grasses part around me like teasing tendrils of the Red Sea. I heard the barking first. Air so cold it could shatter with a well-aimed blow carried every sound like a shotgun blast across the plains. The dog was higher than my waist, larger than Murphy, larger than the van which had carried the five of us to the countryside (I think – superlative may have hijacked memory on this one). It was shaggy and ostensibly white, and it was snarling, but I don’t remember feeling fear. It stopped about a foot from me at the sharp, unintelligible command of the man trailing it.

His face was very dark and red and cracking at the creases due to a lifetime of the cold and the harsh wind and the unforgiving sun. I don’t think he could have been that much older than me. He was huge at first site, absolutely colossal and blotting out the rising sun. As he came closer, I realised that the entirety of his bulk was comprised of heavy animal skins and wrappings. His face was surrounded by a shaggy hood, and a long, wide outer robe of red wrapped him from head to ankle. I think there was a very wide band of leather around his waist several times. His eyes were like the woods – lovely, dark and deep.

He tensed when I held out a hand for the dog, and spoke to me while I lost my hand in the dense scruff of the magnificent animal. I could tell he was trying several dialects, and I tried more than a few of my own before it became clear that we didn’t share words. I wouldn’t have minded listening to the unfamiliar tones of his Tibetan derivative, but we didn’t use words as the three of us turned toward a thin plume of smoke rising from a small home across the plain.

It was a surprisingly companionable walk for someone as skittish as I had become, and someone who had clearly never seen anyone like me before. His home was a short building, passages between darkened rooms covered with thick, tanned skins. There was a bicycle, and a half a dozen goats. The path to the house was dotted with their pellets.

I think there were three rooms in their home. His wife came out to meet me, and when she took my hands, I knew without looking that they were the same texture as her cheeks. I think we were of an age. She pulled me through a doorway so low that I had to duck, and invited me to sit on a wooden, quilt-covered pallet beside a coal stove on which two pots were simmering. One was boiling water.

She touched my hair and I indicated that I admired her thick black braid, which was threaded through her woven belt and brushed the backs of her thighs. The most valuable thing I had was a book, but she preferred a small photograph I was carrying, of my family. I remember the way she pointed to my mother, and then to my face.

I wish I could remember her name.

She made me breakfast then, scooping a handful of thick dark flour (barley?) into a wide earthenware bowl, adding a generous dollop of pungent, oily yak butter, and pouring in a stream of hot, viscous milk from the boiling kettle. She mixed it with a well-practised turn of her hand and indicated that I was to consume it in the same manner. I feel – as much at this very moment of memory as at the time – incredibly grateful for the generosity and welcome without agenda or condition, and for the sharing of food and company. I feel – with only slight guilt – gratitude much stronger that her attention was then turned to her next task, the watching of which allowed me to slow my consumption perceptibly. (It’s a terrible and deep beyond rudeness to refuse food, and I felt that rejecting what I understood to be a daily staple and the most important thing they could offer a guest would have been a vile and shaming gesture. Even now, with the memory of the taste making my stomach turn, I can’t describe the truth of the flavours and textures, because the simple kindness of the gift was overwhelming.)

In this home characterized by earthy tones and fibrous weavings, was a framed portrait of the Dalai Lama, incongruous in his bright reds and yellows. There was another framed portrait there too, an 8 by 10 of some red and yellow drawing – maybe an elephant? – accented with glitters. They sat on a mantel, or dresser, and her movements were practised and loving as she took out a stack of tiny tarnished brass bowls. Her precision amazed and interested me, as I sat on her bed next to the blessedly hot stove, with my fingers wrapped in a warm, crumbly paste. She filled some of the bowls with clear, clean water, others with dollops of yak butter. Some of the butter she burned, and burned candles as well, setting the brass bowls around the framed pictures on the mantel. I had not before, nor have since, seen a religious ceremony quite like it, and my Catholic upbringing was humbled by the quiet belief and ritualistic ceremony without the attention and pomp. That ritual had been a part of her morning for forever, and I knew she would clean the bowls with careful hands and carry on for endless tomorrows. In lots of places, religion means roots, and family.

Her eyes were like the woods too, lovely, dark and deep, but I did have promises to keep, and as I left the home, Carl was walking toward me across the plains. He knew there was no need to shatter the stillness with unintelligible conversation, and the three of us walked back to the fence post in silence.

Wouldn’t I love, love to explore that shore up above?

I don’t know how much of this I’ve shared before, and how accurate my memory remains, because the events immediately following plunged me into a maelstrom of disillusionment and despair that put paid to joy and balance for many moons.

But I remember now, and I feel in the quiet of the rising sun morning, the stillness and peace of the grasslands beyond Xia’he. I began writing this morning because a random playlist brought up a Disney song while I was buried in my work, and I remembered so strongly riding home on that bouncing bus from Xia’he to Lanzhou with a dozen of my colleagues singing Disney showtunes in the back that I wanted to preserve that memory. Not like the curtailed beauty of a butterfly in a jar of formaldehyde, but like jotting down a recipe that carries more than simple tastes, in a place that finding it will stir the air with all those sensory memories it invokes.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Ma Ke
    Sep 16, 2009 @ 01:15:38

    Recipes, memories to be revived, l’amour ressuscité.


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