Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles, Day 3 (part 1)

I didn’t sleep well maybe because of my excitement, and was up well before 7 with a weird dream in my head. I normally don’t remember dreams but this one stuck. At 8 we went down for the breakfast buffet – another big spread here but unlike in Xi’an there are no captions on the food. Fortunately, Jessica turned up just as we were looking, and helped us interpret some of the items. After loading my plate I realized that there was a counter where a gent was making la mian noodles from scratch. I determined to try that out the next day. The food was again very good – interesting how much of a Sichuan influence there is on most things here.

By 8:30, we were in our black VW Santana 2000 – one of the most popular models in the mainland, roughly corresponding to a Corolla or a Civic in specs. The first stop was the Western Thousand Buddha Caves. Five minutes after leaving the not very big town, we caught our first sight of desert sand dunes off to the left. We drove parallel to them along the two lane highway, past the “Dunhuang Hollywood” studio, a faux castle created for the purpose of shooting movies, forty of which have been created to date. Either side of the road stretched blank expanses of yellow-brown sand and dust, a lovely blue sky uninterrupted overhead. Suddenly, after about half an hour of following the arrow-straight highway into nowhere, we took an abrupt left turn onto the ground by the road, and started driving away from it. Looking out, I could see no discernible road or path that we were following. Rather, at times it seemed as if we were following a set of tire tracks, but at other times it seemed as if there may be several such “trails” on either side of us. We bounced along for a couple of minutes until, up ahead, I saw a car parked by a solitary bush. We pulled up next to it. Jessica said, “Here we are.”

Bemused, excited, wary, I got out of the car. It turned out there was a set of concrete steps built into a cliffside behind the bush, invisible from the approach path. The cliff ran parallel to the road, which is why I hadn’t been able to see it. And off to the left, running along the cliff facing away from the road, I could see a series of caves cut about ten meters up from where the ground lay below. A narrow concrete corridor connecting the cave faces ran along the side of the cliff wall, with banisters to prevent people falling off the opposite side.

We descended the stairs to the level of the corridor that had been visible from above. A locked door separated us from it, and the stairs doubled back going down to the base of the cliff where an artificially manicured garden lay, looking *very* out of place in the middle of the desert. We later learned that a river ran by the far side of the garden, so it wasn’t *that* artificial. An introduction to desert ecology for us. Of course, none of this was visible from road level.

Jessica explained that a closed circuit TV would have recorded our arrival, so we’d now have to wait around for a bit till the caretaker arrived to let us in. It didn’t take long for him to appear, out of the garden, followed by a family of videocam wielding Chinese tourists. He climbed the stairs to corridor level and unlocked a door – not the one that led to the corridor, but another one that led into a little cave room in the cliffside. There he proceeded to sit behind a table and dole out tickets. Cameras aren’t allowed past the door, so I and the Chinese had both to make us of the free onsite locker facilities.

Formalities attended to, we followed the caretaker out of his office and through the now-unlocked door to the caves. There were several cave entrances along the length of the corridor (which curved along the cliffside out of view), but only a few were open for viewing. The first one we stepped into was completely dark inside. However, we had brought a flashlight, which Jessica now switched on to start showing us the paintings on interior walls. My first impression was of many many many little Buddha figures painted all over the walls. The cave wasn’t very big, about ten feet or so across and similarly deep, but there were hundreds of these little figures in unending arrays. I was startled to see that they all had black faces – J explained this as being due to the oxidation of the mineral pigments used. This cave was painted in the Tang dynasty, China’s Golden Age approximately 1400 years ago, yet one can still make out almost all the features on the paintings, discoloration notwithstanding.

Each of the caves we entered featured a couple of large paintings, bigger than lifesize taking up an entire wall, surrounded by tons of other smaller ones. Some of the caves had a big pillar right at the center inside, which afforded even greater surface area to paint on. However, a few of these were sealed off with tape or glass walls, so we could only view from afar. A couple of the others had tiny antechambers, barely large enough for a person to sit in, off to one or both sides – meant for monks to sit and meditate in. One of the caves had the most incredibly serene Buddha painted on the side of a particularly large inside pillar.

Each of the paintings had a background and a story of its own, but Jessica didn’t seem to know very much about them. The caretaker gave her a brochure in Chinese which she read from and interpreted for us. We learned later that grottoes such as this have dedicated specialist guides to themselves. The one we’re at, desolate as it was, didn’t have an English-speaker around that morning, and the Chinese speaker had gone off with the other group that had arrived at the same time as us. He showed up a little later, dressed in of all things army fatigues. Answered a few questions from us. We proceeded down the corridor, ducking into those caves that were open for viewing. After we’d seen the last one, TPB and I walked alone to the very end of the corridor – to the point where there was nothing but cliff to our left and old river valley below. We saw where the river must have flowed back then. It must have *really* overflowed to have come up all the way up here, threatening the caves as it had on occasion. J did say that many people ask why these guys came all the way out here to the middle of desolate nowhere to paint these caves; and the simple answer is that back then it *wasn’t* a wilderness at all.

A little context here. Going from east to west, Dunhuang was the first major oasis town on the Silk Road. Caravans would start from the capital Xi’an (Chang’an), and, going westwards, would first reach Jiayuguan, the westernmost extremity of the Ming Dynasty (approx 14th-15th century). Then, after the first stretch of wilderness, would come Dunhuang. This is where the Taklamakan, the real desert, began (“Taklamakan” in Uyghur means, “he who enters does not return”; Aurel Stein, the legendary early 20th century explorer and archeologist, called the Gobi desert just northeast of here, “an afternoon walk in the park for the ladies”, or words to that effect, in comparison with the Taklamakan). From here caravans would take any one of three major routes, two skirting north and one going south. And before setting off on this life-threatening venture, or alternately, on arrival, deliverance from a deathly journey eastward, they would pause to give thanks. Which is why the area around Dunhuang, and all other major oasis settlements, contained several such divine grottoes.

The most famous of these, the one in best surviving condition, is at Mogao, also near Dunhuang. We were scheduled to head there in the afternoon. But first, from the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, we drove southwest towards the Yangguan Pass – about an hour away.

Yangguan was the furthest frontier of the Chinese Empire during its greatest period, the Tang Dynasty (approx 7th-9th century). As we drove up, we could see the ruins of the beacon tower – now no more than a few storeys high. However, as we neared, the barren landscape suddenly changed to complete greenery. Another oasis. We drove past lush vineyards and took a left off the highway past an incongruous set of newly constructed empty villas that could have been lined up in any Delhi suburb. We pulled up at another reproduction old-timey fort, much like the Dunhuang Hollywood. The Yangguan museum. A product of the 21st century.

This little two-room museum had a model exhibit of the view from a “bacon tower”, and a surprisingly large proportion of its space devoted to horses. The ancient Chinese only had access to their local horses, which were much smaller and slower than horses we know today. These are descended from the horses of Central Asia, which (“heavenly horses”) came to China via the Silk Road. Indeed, the western extension of the Great Wall in these parts is all about horses. Here it’s not the high stone construction that we all know from the pictures of the tourist trap in Beijing. Here, it’s more functional. Built of straw and compressed earth, it barely reaches a couple of meters in height. The reason being that all it needed to do was prevent horses from jumping over. The sweeping invasions of the Xiongnu (Huns) were effective only on horseback. The wall did not have to be too high to neutralize them.

Outside the museum there was a nice big statue of Zhang Qian on horseback.
This legendary warrior is the one credited with first blazing the Silk Road. It’s yet another incredible story. Circa 139 BC, the Han Emperor Wu Di decided that the Xiongnu were getting too much of a pain in the butt to tolerate. However, he wasn’t very confident of beating them by himself, and so he needed allies. The Yuezhi tribe had recently been forced out of northern China all the way west towards modern Uzbekistan. He decided that they must themselves be hungry for revenge and eager to get back to their homeland, and so it would be a good idea to team up with them. So he sent Zhang Qian to try and locate them. No one from China had ever been that far west before.

Zhang was captured by the Xiongnu almost as soon as he set off. However, they didn’t kill him, but instead tried to domesticate him, providing him with creature comforts of every sort. For ten years he stayed with them, even fathering a child during the while. Then, finally, he escaped. Incredibly, he found his way west and located the Yuezhi. Unfortunately for him, they decided that they were happy where they were, the agrarian life suited them well, and, unlike many modern tribes, didn’t feel it worth the while to enter battle for land they had lost long ago. Zhang Qian, rebuffed, turned back. This time he followed what is now known as the southern Silk Road. He finally reached Chang’an more than thirteen years after he’d first left, with only one other member of his original party that was a hundred strong.

Zhang Qian looked a little more heavyset than I had imagined, and his horse was definitely larger than one he’d have ridden on. I think. I walked past his statue and heard music coming from a courtyard that lay through a doorway to the left. TPB had gone to buy water from the only stand in the vicinity, but without waiting for either her or Jessica, I followed my ears. To my surprise, I saw a group of six very pretty young ladies, dressed in flowing white (blouses and bell-bottoms cut in some faux-traditional style) with red sashes and scarves, dancing in unison. The music was being piped through some speakers somewhere. A small group of Chinese tourists was watching them. As I approached, the music stopped; and they stopped and retreated into a wooden hut at the far end of the courtyard. It was all very mysterious. I followed them into the hut and walked into something resembling a set from a play. Off to the left was a set of old-timey costumes: step into one and get your photograph clicked. Dead center was a heavy wooden desk with a long wooden parchment bearing an important-looking inscription. Sit at the desk, pretend to be the local regent, and get your photograph clicked. To the right is a bearded gentleman wearing a coat of armor (in this weather!). On his desk is a selection of stamped papers and passports, ostensibly from 1500 years ago. He will stamp one for you as well. And one of the pretty ladies in white will then present it to you. And you can get your photograph clicked.

Hearing another group of tourists approaching, the ladies ran back front. The music restarted, as did their dancing. I stood in the doorway behind them and shot a video, which ends with TPB and Jessica sidestepping the edge-most white lady and entering my hut.
They looked around, and then we all exited through the back door, through an open yard, and out the back gate (where a faux soldier was checking those passports that had just been issued). To get to the relic of the beacon tower, we had a choice between two sorts of carts: 12-seater electric versus 6-seater donkey. We went with electric, preferring to be able to spend more time at the destination, as did almost everyone (there were about twenty others there, counting the two tour groups). A short ride through the dunes brought us to the fenced-off tower, the only surviving ancient structure in the place. A minute’s walk away was a long viewing gallery that looked out over the Taklamakan, and a minute further on, at the top of a small hill right on the edge of the desert, was one last lookout point. Something in me snapped. I scrambled up towards the old beacon tower then turned, looked back, and giving the viewing gallery a miss, made a beeline for the far lookout point. To my good fortune, everyone else went either to the beacon tower or the viewing gallery, or both. I was alone – alone – at the edge of this endless desert.



SO MUCH history to it.

TWENTY YEARS since I’d first read and dreamt about it.

This REALLY was the middle of nowhere. And I was in it.

TPB landed up a few minutes later, so we had a little breathless time there to ourselves. I’m a placid sort; I don’t remember when last I was so excited. Jessica followed shortly, and then, increasingly, other tourists. Soon almost everyone was there, and the donkey cart lady was inviting us aboard. That’s when we decided to walk back. The weather had turned interesting – looking back towards the old beacon tower it seemed as if it might even be raining in Dunhuang. There was a lovely cool breeze, quite unlike anything I’d have expected from my first view of this legendary desert. Of course, TPB still had her shades and hat on, and within two steps out of the lookout point the wind had whipped the hat off her head and sent it tumbling towards the Taklamakan. “He who enters shall not return,” I thought, as I, camera on alert, followed her chase it. Luckily the hat had got caught on a rock about halfway up the hill to the lookout point – somehow she scrambled up and then down again, despite the state of her legs courtesy the previous day’s exertions at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, while I recorded the moment for her grandchildren.

All the way on the drive back to town I could not stop marveling about the beauty of the spot. And then, as if to set the seal on it, it actually started raining on us, i.e., on our car. Desert Rain. I woke TPB from yet another of her 25 minute naps so that she could feel the moment as well. After she went back to sleep, after a little struggle with my conscience, I determined that I would listen to Indian Ocean the next time I rousted the poodle out.

Our driver's Chairman Mao charm spun gracefully in time to the rhythm of the desert rain.


The story, long as it is, is just warming up. Yet, Gentle Reader, I must take your leave for a few days now: there is an intercontinental relocation to attend to. If all goes according to plan, I will be able to pick up from where I leave you some time later this week. Wish me luck.

The storyteller makes no choice
Soon you will not hear his voice

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles: Day 2 (part 2)

Terracotta Warriors *And Horses* Museum

*And Horses* because Louis cannot mention the museum without stressing the horses in his lilting diction. The drive, according to him, is “less than one hour” eastwards. (I realize that the “less than” is supposed to signify exactitude, rather than signal proximity, which is how I’d have used it. So He actually thinks it’s quite a long drive. A similar difference cropped up in his and some others’ use of the word “several” – they didn’t use it to mean “many”, but rather in the sense of “more than a couple (2) and more than a few (3-4), so approximately five or six”). TPB falls asleep for exactly 25 minutes. I’m amazed at this new ability of hers – she did it in the taxi to the airport back in HK and on the flight as well. L also drops off so I amuse myself by trying to take photographs that blend the outside views with the enormous decals of Sylvester and Tweetie pasted on the side of our van. I end up with a pretty funny one of Louis’s head with a ghostbusted ghost’s fingers flashing a V sign above it. The scenery outside isn’t spectacular – some green fields, some buildings.

Eventually we reach, the driver drops us off at the crowded parking lot. It’s blazing sunny. L goes off and gets our tickets – fancy plastic ones that slip through turnstiles just like on a subway. We have to retain them because they check at four different places inside at entrances to various pits. There’s a choice between a ten minute queue for an electric cart to go to the pits and a ten minute walk. We choose the walk. I swap into my cool new shades. I’m cool. We walk along the obviously and overly manicured path, large concrete squares interspersed with patches of grass at exactly regular intervals, undulating gardens to either side. There’s a lovely mountain range serving as a backdrop at a distance, however, there is some haze in the heat so I don’t attempt a photograph. We will be seeing mountains before this trip is done.

As we walk, Louis tells us that he isn’t married, and a large part of that is due to the fact that he doesn’t own an apartment. An average apartment in Xi’an goes for 800,000 Yuan (also called Renminbi or RMB) – that’s a little more than 100,000 USD, and the cheapest one is 500K, and girls won’t marry you unless you own one. I tried to say that if she won’t marry you for the lack of real estate maybe she isn’t worth it after all, but that didn’t get through. This happened in the middle of a conversation in which he’d asked about Hong Kong – how humid (“moist”) it is. Just like last night, he was very curious to know about HK. At one point in the car he’d assumed that TPB is a housewife and had asked her if she likes cooking. Not having seen his assumption, she happily answered yes, at which he looked at me and said, “You must be a happy man!” TPB glowered at him – it was okay since he was looking at me – and once he looked away I couldn’t stop grinning at her indignant face.

The first building he took us to was a circular hall where they were showing a film about the terracotta warriors. The film was projected on large screens all round the darkened auditorium, in an uninterrupted 360 degree view. Very novel, and a nice effect. We entered from a side, squeezing in amongst scattered crowds of barely-visible bodies, many sitting or squatting on the floor. Next to me two ugly ladies chatted non-stop (in Russian) with their Chinese guide. Funnily, although the view was 360 degrees, most people were only looking in one direction. The 45 minute film, supposedly on a perennial loop, finished just as we were getting oriented, a couple of minutes after we walked in. We waited for an exodus but it didn’t happen. Then we waited for the film to restart. But that didn’t happen either. Instead, the lights brightened. We lost our patience and decided we’d rather see the real thing instead of this. We walked out. Found ourselves in the souvenir shop. Louis had said it was more expensive than the several merchants he’d said were clustered outside the exit gate, but the merchandise was significantly better in quality. The shop contained LOTS of terracotta warriors and although the range of sizes was quite great (from 3 inch puppets to 7 foot giants that our movers had already cautioned us about) but the variety of styles, especially in the smaller sizes, wasn’t that great. I’d wanted a small warrior guy to take along home but none of the three available caught my fancy.

We tracked Louis down in a cafeteria adjoining the souvenir shop. He was just settling down to a bottle of cold water, and was surprised to see us out so soon. We told him we got bored of the film and decided to make the most of our limited time here (the grumpy driver had stipulated that we had to be on the road by 4). So off we went to the next building, aka Pit #1. This is *the* main pit – the one popularized in photographs of the Xi’am Terracotta Warrior Army. (Brief background – this army of clay soldiers was built and buried by Emperor Shi Huangdi, about 2200 years ago, as a way of protecting himself against enemies in future lives. Interesting fact #1: he was going to have live soldiers buried with him, but after his death they decided that the realm needed all live soldiers on deck so let’s just stick with the clay dudes for now. Interesting fact #2: the enemies of his realm were all located to the south and the east, and a mountain range lies to the south, so practically his entire army faces east.) The pit is long and rectangular and sunken – somewhat like a modern aircraft hangar or football field. As you walk in, you come up on the warriors about 5 meters below you, arranged in straight lines four or five abreast, separated by heaps of earth as high as the warriors, running the length of the file (i.e., wayyyy back). It’s a really impressive sight – rows upon rows of warriors, each one a different individual. We elbow our way to the front of the two-deep crowd for a gander, then swing round to the right to look at the profiles. Walking further back towards the far end, a little more than halfway past the center line, we began to pass warriors in a decidedly worse state – not just decapitated but lying on the ground in several pieces, some of which had long since returned to their Mother Earth. The far corner of the barn features a set of almost perfectly done warriors. These are the guys they are still reconstructing from available fragments. There’s a crowd here too, since the display is so neat. Some idiots put a 4-year old girl over the barrier into the pit to take a photo – with alacrity the kid, secure in the knowledge that she is cute, makes off towards the nearest Warrior. It’s all raw earth where she is so she could slide and fall any moment right on top of a 2000 year old sculpture, but luckily she doesn’t and her parents’ terrified cries manage to stop her. The hoist her back over, but not before she’s posed for a cutesy snap.

From Tomb 1 we emerge into the scorching sunlight and walk to Tomb 3. This tomb is supposed to be the GHQ of the terracotta army. This is because unlike in the other tombs, where the soldiers are arrayed facing east, this tomb is much smaller and shaped more like a cross, with four rows of soldiers facing inwards. There are also a few more horses evident here. We then walk to Tomb 2, which is enormous, but unfortunately mostly ruined (more as one would expect for a ruin this old, I’d think). Unlike the other two tombs, this one also has a few statues installed in glass cases around the viewing gallery. The crush around these displays was unbelievable – not to *see* the statues, but to be photographed next to them. There’s a similar situation in the last exhibit we visit – two half life-size bronze chariots reined to four horses each, including a replica working model of the multipurpose umbrella (weather shield plus arrow shield – get yours *today*!) used in the first chariot. Very impressive, all in all, except for the people acting annoyed because you haven’t had the courtesy to move the back of your shoulder out of their photograph.

As we exited this last display, we realized we had some extra time since we’d skipped the movie. We had half an hour free, so I suggested we return to Pit #1 to gawk at the *left* side this time. The only question that got Louis disconcerted all day was: “If these guys really are warriors why are so many of them looking happy?” He protested that they were indeed warriors and no, they didn’t look happy to him. I pointed out one grinning specimen then let the matter drop. Fifteen minutes or so later we made another recce of the gift shop where again we unsuccessfully looked for a soldier we thought we could take home to mom but ended up buying nothing.

On the way back to the car, Louis began to open out. He’d had a couple of phone calls during the last half hour or so, and the volume of the conversation had made me hope it wasn’t anything related to our recalcitrant driver. Turned out it was actually Louis’ girlfriend. She had just flown in from Shenzhen and landed to realize that her bags were on the following flight – due two hours later. Louis, manfully, had been trying to persuade her that this was a Blessing in Disguise, since two hours from now would be when he (and we) would land up at the airport, the Warriors being about an hour due east of Xi’an city, and Xianyang airport roughly the same distance west.

We were in the act of checking in when she showed up. Louis broke off his protracted negotiations with the lady behind the counter to beam lovingly at me. Disconcerted, I looked over my shoulder and saw Her. Louis was already halfway to her, in true Hindi movie style. Thankfully, I remembered to check the boarding passes and saw that he’d gotten the two of us seats 8C and 14F. I’d asked for “aisle and middle”, he’d passed that on as “aisle and window”. I made him get it changed, despite Check-in Lady’s evident displeasure.

We sensed that Louis was in a hurry to get going now, and he seemed like he wanted to make sure we walked through security before he left. But there was still 45 minutes till the last call, and, paoma notwithstanding, we were nibblish. We got him to point us to the restaurant – there were two, a “fast food” buffet on the floor we were on and a regular sit down place on the floor below, and then, after a final assurance that yes, we’d be able to take care of ourselves, we said goodbye to the broadly smiling couple. They tootled off, hand in hand.

We went the opposite way, to the sit-down restaurant, arguing that the airport restaurant in a city as large as Xi’an should be reasonably used to serving foreigners. Made a pit stop at the restrooms just outside the joint; the men’s room featured a big sign in Chinese with presumably the same characters transliterated below in English script. The restaurant was mostly empty, it wasn’t yet 6 pm, but a few people were sitting and eating. However, as we walked in, the hostess at the entrance looked at us panic-stricken and said “No, no food! No food!” Then she retreated deep inside and confabulated with a couple of others, then they led us in – all the way inside to the table closest to the kitchen door, and made us sit facing the door with our backs to the rest of the restaurant. Then the solitary English-speaker on the staff approached us, and told us there is no food available except beef-noodles and vegetable-noodles. We said perfect, that’s exactly what we want. She looked pleasantly surprised. I asked – what’s there to drink? She didn’t get it. I said: tea? Water? She said: “Please wait a moment” and rushed off. And we were left sitting there.

The food came after a few minutes. Two bowls with noodle soup, accompanied by a couple of prehistoric looking black hardboiled eggs in the shell which we didn’t touch. TPB’s noodles were in a red tomato broth which looked very unusual to us, but both our dishes proved to be simple and reasonably tasty. A little later, the English speaking waitress returned with both tea and water. The tea, expensive at 15 RMB, was the worst I’ve tasted in China.

We finished and asked to pay. Miss English said it was a round 100 bucks. I asked her to itemize, and it turned out to be 95. She apologized profusely. I gave a hundred RMB bill. They returned a fiver as change, just as the cleaning lady was wiping up our table. We got up, leaving the bill as tip on the table, and walked out (the custom in Hong Kong is not the whole 15% thing, but to just leave the change). Imagine our surprise when our waitress comes charging out of the restaurant behind us waving the bill and saying “Esscussmee, you forget this!”

We went through security and found Gate 15, as per our boarding passes. There was no one there. I went and checked on a counter, and saw that we were now at Gate 19. We found it – it was downstairs – and it seemed to be shared by half a dozen airlines. None of whom, of course, spoke any English. A handwritten white board nearby informed us that our flight was half an hour late. That half hour went by quickly, we sat by the gate, TPB read while I updated the log, but every time a new airline used the gate we went through a little paroxysm of concern. Eventually, we found our flight and got onto the bus to the aircraft okay. Driving over the tarmac I felt that practically every city in China has an airline named after it.

TPB fell in love with a photograph of a cave painting on the cover of the inflight magazine. It was a picture, probably painted on the top of a cave, of a dozen-odd apsaras arranged in a circle with their feet at the center. Unfortunately, the entire magazine was in Chinese. Now, we had *plenty* of painted caves lined up on our itinerary, so the question was – are these on our agenda? She simply *had* to see them. She asked me to ask the snotty nosed 10 year old sitting to my left by the window to translate the caption. I refused. She analyzed my character and then leaned over and asked the kid herself.
- Can you tell us what this is?
- No.
- Can you read it?
- Yes.
He read it out. No one learned anything. We tucked the magazine away, intending to find out where these grottoes were. The food came. We, full with our noodles, ate very little – but we had our first exposure to Xinjiang’s famed raisins. I also got me a Xinjiang Beer (instead of the brand advertised on the headrest – “Sinkiang Beer. Natural Aftertaste”). As the flight attendant cleared our trays away, she spilled half a carton of leftover chicken-rice on TPB’s lap. Luckily (what can I say?) our excellent Silk Road travel book (Author: Judy Bonavia) was under the tray and so remained unstained. The attendant apologized profusely and tried to mop it up. Luckily we’d been hoarding the wet tissues so that helped clean as well as dearomatize. Our crisis handled, the same attendant then proceeded to spill half her cart’s contents on the aisle a few rows back from us. She was not having a good day, and we decided we got off lucky.

We landed, walked down the steps, and across the practically deserted tarmac to the only lit door on the low-slung barn that was the airport building. Apart from the lights on the plane and the few emanating from the airport, there was darkness all round. There was simply nothing off to the side. Nothing. “TR,” TPB said in a tone of wonder, “We’re in the middle of nowhere!” I took a few pictures but she was right – they *do not* capture the emptiness of it.

“No,” I corrected her. “We just arrived at the edge of nowhere. Tomorrow we’ll be at the middle.”

We picked up our bags from the single carousel and walked the few yards to the reception area (from where waiting people had a clear view right through to the tarmac). Three men were waiting. The sign with my name was wielded by a young lady dressed in a fitted white shirt and white trousers. We met Hai Xia, Jessica.

In the car driving to town she told us about Dunhuang. Population 180,000, 90% Han Chinese, rest Uyghur, Mongol, Kazakh, etc. Situated at the edge of the desert, the temperature varies a lot even on a daily basis, especially during Fall and Spring. “We have a local saying: ‘In the morning we wear fur coats, at noon skirts or shirts, and in the evening we wear fur coats and sit by the stove eating watermelons.” She pronounced it stoove

.She also told us that we’ve hit the peak season for apricots. They call apricots the king of fruits in Dunhuang, and the best ones come out during the first two weeks of July. That’s luck.


Dunhuang July 11, 11:45 PM



I cannot BELIEVE that we’re here.

The plane was late getting in but Jessica was there at the airport. The drive into town was short. We had originally been supposed to spend the night in Xi’an and arrive in Dunhuang the next day but the plane schedules had been changed. Happily, J had already worked our schedule around to optimally manage the extra time we would have here. This also gives us an opportunity to stop at the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, which TPB really wants to see.

The room is nice – more like a standard hotel room than the one in Xi’an although the bed is harder than normal. I had to move the desk away from the wall to get the battery recharger to access the only available plug point. I took a shower first. A sign by the toilet says: “Please put toilet paper into dustbin after use.” I ignored that instruction. TPB’s now gone for a shower and is using the fact that we’re here for two nights to wash a few clothes including the chicken-adorned top she’d been wearing. While she’s showering, I’m updating this log. I first sat around feeling happy and then read the local tourist brochure. I have the poodle on for the first time this trip. A couple of Ellington tunes played first up so it was just like a lovely evening back home. I thought about the incongruence of listening to Ellington in Dunhuang then realized there’s no point thinking about it – the Silk Road was all about travelers from all over anyway. And I’M IN DUNHUANG man – that’s the bottom line of it. Then I sang along with Louis Armstrong and Paul Simon, hummed with Miles, and am listening to Morning Dew right now.

Soon I will put this pen and pad and poodle away, and settle back onto my pillow to wonder at the wonder of it all.

I can’t believe I’m in Dunhuang.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles, Day 2 (part 1)

I beat the wake up call, poking the head out at 5:40. A quick visit to the restroom and I’m back in the sack for that last comforting snooze. This *is* a holiday after all. The call comes at 6; it’s automated alternating Mandarin and English. The English part says, “It’s NOW time to WAKE UP.” Imbued with the Communist Work Ethic, I roust TPB out of bed. By 6:15. Sit down and write the previous day’s log till she is done abluting. 6:30.

At 6:45 we head downstairs for the breakfast buffet. (I can’t imagine anything but the most extraordinary circumstances seeing me get breakfast at that hour. This *must* be a special occasion. I dupe my body by telling it that I’m jetlagged.) The buffet spread is lavish, stretching all the way up and down a long oval table – probably made up of several tables – set in the middle of a large hall. I sample a bit of most things, taking an extrabig serving of Chinese beef curry with carrots, and some fried rice, a veg dumpling, a mutton dumpling (the first of many, I think to myself), and other assorted stuff (much of which I wouldn’t be able to identify if pressed). TPB eats cereal, of all things. Jet lag. Breakfast done by 7:20, we head out to the Islamic Quarter.

It’s not hard to find, round the corner from our hotel, then just a little down the street and through a subterranean crossing, past the Drum Tower (in China a Bell Tower was always accompanied by a Drum Tower – they rang the Bell in the morning and beat the Drum at night) in front of which a bunch of middle aged ladies were doing some sort of strange uncoordinated musicless dance that looked like a parody of qi-gong, round a couple of other nifty corners, and there we were – a big sign across the top of the street proclaimed that we were gloriously unlost. The street was long and flanked by avenues and closed shopfronts. It wasn’t completely deserted, but the few people who were there were walking right down the middle of the street. The occasional shopkeeper was opening up for the day; a couple of shop windows were already open including one with an intriguing display of dried fruit that included kiwi fruit, and a few local tea houses were serving breakfast. TPB decided she wanted to find the local mosque. That too proved to be surprisingly easy – the only street signs that were there featured arrows and the legend “Grand Mosque”. Following the signs we took a left about a couple of hundred yards down the street, and another left into a tiny narrow lane called Artisan Street. The lane seemed completely deserted except for a single old man wearing a Muslim skullcap. We walked past him, the narrowness of the lane meant that even the slight bends in the road obscured what lay ahead. The lane had some kind of canopy on top, adding to the spookiness – it really looked as if it could run on forever, although we could not have walked more than a hundred yards or so.

All of a sudden, at a T junction with another lane running off to the right, we come up on an opening in the canopy and a big red gate up ahead, with the sign “Grand Mosque Ticket Office”. It's closed. Up the lane to the right, a bunch of people – Muslims not Han Chinese - are standing around in front of an open door. Inside, there is a lovely leafy courtyard, with more people sitting around in small groups. I realize it's the courtyard of the mosque - they've probably just had their morning prayers. We walk past and realize there’s nothing to see here, so we turn back and walk the way we’ve come. Can’t even see the mosque properly since there’s a high grey wall surrounding it. On the way back, at the corner opposite the ticket office, TPB finds a souvenir shop and is drawn in. Starts looking at porcelain masks. The young Han guy explains these correspond to the animals that represent the Chinese years – this one’s a Tiger, that one a Dragon, etc. TPB asks – which one is Goat? The guy hears “good”. Says all are good. Turns out he doesn’t know what a Goat is. We try mutton. I tentatively say baa. Nothing works. He runs off and returns with a set of cards with all the Years on them. Finally, we reach mutual understanding. TPB looks for the animals that correspond with certain specific years; finds them. A little half-hearted bargaining ensues, and an agreement is reached. The kid (good kid) packs our new masks into boxes, and we retrace our steps along the now awakening Artisan and Islamic Streets. By the time we return, it’s 8:05 and Louis is waiting in the hotel lobby. We go upstairs, pack the masks in with our already-packed bags (we’re Efficient), and are checked out and on the road in a whiff.

Shaanxi Historical Museum

Opens at 8:30, we’re there at 8:27. Louis persuades the museum staff to let us in anyway. Shaanxi is the province of which Xi’an is the capital -- I’d thought that the museum would be a good place to start our trip as we’d get some live historical context (as opposed to the books we’d been swotting up till then), plus so much of Chinese history is anchored in terms of the various dynasties that hearing the sequence a few times also helps us get our bearings. Going chronologically, Louis takes us through the four galleries, explaining several of the artifacts in great detail. He really likes to get his dates right (“This sign says x happened in 600 AD. I think that is incorrect. According to me, and I checked this on the internet, it happened in 601 AD.”) TPB gets a little impatient at his meticulousness and wanders off. Occasionally, I step back and take a photo. Whenever I see a map featuring either India or the Silk Road, I ask Louis to translate it for me. (Most signs are in Chinese.) Xi'an, formerly known as Chang'an (Eternal Peace) was the capital of China for over a thousand years so a lot of action took place in these parts. However several of the displays are quite interesting, not just from a historical perspective but esthetically as well. For instance, I took quite a liking to this thousand year old dog and horse with Attitude. But the highlight of the museum for me is the display featuring replicas of the terracotta warriors -– although we’ll visit the site and see the real deal after lunch, just the notion of being so close to this incredible relic makes me go all shivery inside. Midway through Gallery 2, L's cell phone alarm interrupts his lengthy discourse and he looks up and tells us a little worriedly that we’re running late.

Funny thing happens on the way out of the museum. Louis tells us that the driver, Mr. Li, is pissed off because we added the Big Wild Goose Pagoda to our list of things to do. I’d drawn that itinerary up in conjunction with the travel agent a couple of months ago, and the agent had assured me that it was an indicative program and we had “full flexibility” once on the ground. So that sounded a little weird to me but Louis said we shouldn’t worry and he’d take care of it – which is exactly what I’d have said anyway. So I said nothing; we exited the museum, Mr. Li was waiting in his car at the gate, and we drove to our next stop.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Constructed for Xuan Tsang to live in and work his translating magic from when he finally returned from India 1400 years ago, this seven storey tower with the pre-Pisa lean and square cross-section is situated in its own grounds with its own little display house off to the side. TPB and I enter leaving Louis downstairs, and decide to climb the stairs to the top. Each floor is about ten feet square, and the center of each side has a little four foot passage extending outwards, with a glass window at the end. The steps, nice and comfortable at the lower levels, get both narrower and steeper as we go up. There’s nothing much on any floor except a few large works of calligraphy (which we cannot read which may be why I’m saying there’s nothing much). On the fifth floor, someone is praying to a drawing of a foot. It’s supposed to be the Buddha’s, I guess, but it looks a size 24 at least. We pause at a couple of the higher floors to take looks out each of the windows. Panoramic views of Xi’an city stretch in all four directions, and the city planners have been smart enough to have laid out broad avenues that appear to emanate from the base of the tower. I find it very interesting that *every* window has large quantities of small-denomination notes scattered on the outside – dropped by people in conjunction with their prayer.

The top floor is a lot more crowded than any of the others – there must be about twenty people here, which is quite a lot for such a small area. We take a quick look through each window again, then head down. On the way down I get a slight cramp in my left thigh – hadn’t warmed up well enough, evidently. As we reach the bottom, TPB also says that her legs are feeling “wobbly”. They’ll stay that way for the next couple of days. Such is the grandeur of the place. A trash can at the exit to the tower says, “Please Keep Cleaning”. If I were home, I would have added “Your Data”.

Louis meets us, looking unhappy. He claims the driver is also upset because we had asked to eat Yangrou Paoma for lunch, and that’s not available at the restaurant they had planned, and the substitute restaurant that Louis has in mind is not quite on the way. This time I quietly but firmly tell him that I am here with the assurance of full flexibility, and the driver can complain to my contact person at the travel agency if he wants. Louis says he’ll handle it – later in the day he apologizes for having brought it up at all and says he shouldn’t have told me. TPB and I can’t decide – was it naivety or some deeper-seated feud with the driver? We take a quick walk through the modern buildings surrounding the pagoda, which feature elaborate full-length murals depicting the life of Xuan Tsang. Right at the end of the last one I spy some Sanskritish text, and gain a few admiring looks from random people nearby when I try to read it out loud.

Xi’an Lao Sun Restaurant

Is where we are led for lunch. It’s on the third floor of a building that seems to be all restaurant, and as we step out from the lift I can’t tell whether ours is only on the third floor or actually occupies the whole building. Probably the former, is my feeling. Since it’s only 11:40 (we’re rushing so that we have enough time for the terracotta warriors) we get a window seat, and we get asked whether we’d like some beer. The day being hot as it is, I say yes, and ask for a good local brand. They say they have Tsingdao – that’s available in HK (and all over the world) so I’m not interested. So then they suggest some other Chinese-sounding name. None of us has heard of it, but L says that from the price it must be good. So I say okay. Two minutes later, the lady brings us a large Heineken.

L had explained to us that with Yangrou Paoma one needs to eat a cold dish, so we get led to the cold dish counter to make our choices. I go with the waitress’ first recommendation, sliced beef. TPB, sticking to her vegetarian principles, is more fussy. However (in shining validation of my belief system) every dish that she identifies as looking tasty and hence points to turns out to be an exotic meat preparation – first crab, then jellyfish, and finally ox-foot. I’d have been happy to share any. She settles on an old favorite – grated sprouts, celery, and carrot in sesame oil. For some reason L calls it “soya”.

Back at the table we get with the Yangrou Paoma ritual. The dish consists of six inch circles of hard round bread that need to be torn by hand into tiny little pieces and dropped in a bowl, and then they come and pour soup over it. The bread soaks up the broth, and it’s supposed to be the local specialty. The rules are very firm – the bread can only be torn by hand, and the smaller the pieces, the better the taste.

We get to work tearing our bread. We’re doing it wrong, for a waitress comes, snatches TPB’s bread, breaks it into quarters, and demonstrates how you should work at it from the inside out. Our bowls start slowly filling up with crumbs. This is hard work – the bread is not soft and the tips of my forefinger and thumb start going sore – but we crumble on manfully. (When I wrote this down, at 7:15 that evening, my fingers were still red.) I discover that rubbing my thumb along the inside make it flake away relatively painlessly, and I wonder why two thousand years of innovation hasn't brought a knife edge to this task. As we each finish the first of our two allotted breads, the waitress wordlessly takes away our bowls. We’re non-plussed. A minute later, they’re returned filled with broth, plonked back down on the table with our breadcrumbs floating inside. We catch someone’s eye and TPB mimes “spoon”. Miraculously, two soup spoons and a ladle materialize. There’s some grated spring onion, some marinated garlic, and some hot sauce on a side plate, and mixing it all up in the broth makes it just yummy. The lamb in my soup is heavenly. This was so worth it, and in fact it gets better as the meal progresses and the crumbs soak up the flavors with increasing intensity. By the time it ends, we’re stuffed and I’m happy. The hard work was well worth it.

L and the driver have been eating at the other end of the restaurant. Once, at the beginning of the meal, L stopped by to see how the crumbling was going, and nodded his approval much like a benevolent junior school teacher. Later, he tells us that he had in fact taught middle school for two years. After we finish I cross the now-crowded restaurant towards their table to see if they’re done as well but they’re not so I don’t disturb them and just walk back. By 12:40 he comes round to our table. He’s settled the bill, so we leave. Next stop: terracotta warriors *and horses*.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles: Day 1

The day that we left would in itself have been quite an eventful one even without the whole Silk Road business. There was excitement about our impending move out of Hong Kong, with multiple moving forms calling and emailing in at the last minute, with offers and counter-offers. I sent off a final acceptance email and closed down the laptop as the taxi waited downstairs, only to remember that I’d forgotten to send a final no to the other firm, and so I had to boot the machine up again. Then, in addition to all that, there was an unexpected inflow of welcome cash, and a Very Nice Person (you know who you are) piped up with some Very Nice News, which had to be forwarded to my kith and kin. All in all, a lot of action, and at the airport we treated ourselves to a couple of relaxed cocktails while waiting to board.

Our flight, China Eastern Airlines from HK to Xi’an, took off and arrived exactly on time. I was most impressed. We realized that there are over a dozen Chinese airlines hanging around the place, and to see this sort of efficiency from one we hadn’t heard of until the travel agent made the bookings was a pleasant surprise and a(nother) signal that the trip was off to an auspicious start.

Not so auspicious was the odor inside the plane. It may have come from the American undergraduate sitting in the row ahead (one of his female companions, boarding the plane, had said, “I don’t want to sit with Peter. Peter smells.”) or it may have been the weird old Chinese man with the lumpy cloth handbag and the stains on his trousers, who was supposed to get the window seat next to us but thankfully chose to sit across the aisle because all three seats were empty. We don’t know. We just know that I got a strong whiff whenever I leaned either forward or sideways, and while deplaning. TPB, luckily for her, didn’t.

The paper napkins thrown over the headrests all had advertising messages printed on them. It was the same message. Unfortunately for us, the only parts written in English were the company name, “Jiangsu Sunshine Group”, and the brand name – POMPEI – written in angular allcaps. Funny choice of name I thought – maybe in Italy they name their brands XIAN. We also got our first taste of the exotic Chinese English, in the duty-free catalog (the in-flight magazine was entirely in Chinese). I got really excited and wanted to rip the pages out. They were the last two pages, and had been added on to the catalog as inserts. TPB sternly didn’t allow me the liberty. So I’m left with a memory of a stuffed pink puppy that one is entreated to buy because it “looks naïve”.

We landed before sunset, so we got a look at Xi’an from above. It was definitely greener than I’d expected – I’d gone in with the idea that all major Chinese cities are smog-ridden concrete wastelands. This didn’t look that way. But then Xi’an is today merely a provincial capital – having relinquished its status as the nation’s capital several hundred years ago. The airport was reasonably large but not bustling with activity, and immigration was perfectly smooth. At the baggage carousel we noticed that no one was standing within fifteen feet of the gateway that the belt was coming through, instead everyone was crowded in towards the back part, so TPB and I smartly went and stood near the top of the line and picked our bags up as they appeared. On our way out we walked past a sign saying “First Class Baggage Collecting Area.” So that was faux pas #1.

Stepping through Customs I looked for and found a sign bearing my name. It wasn’t hard, right through the trip, to do that – my Indian-name sign standing out like a Goliath amongst the monosyllabic Chinese ones. The bearer of the sign was a small, smiling young man who introduced himself as “Louis”. He took us downstairs to the car park where a driver waited in a white Mitsubishi seven-seater.

The ride into town was about an hour long on the new six-lane highway opened in 2005 – very smooth and no traffic at all at 9 pm. All along the way, Louis chattered on in very good English, his sing-song accent and practiced diction reminding me of the girls who participated in declamation contests at my junior school, going “Hum paathshala isliye jaate hain…” In this individualistic style, Louis told us a little about Xi’an and a lot about himself. Born in a village near Xianyang, back where the airport is, his father is a schoolteacher and his mother a small farmer. They grow mainly wheat, corn, and some cotton. We were very interested to hear that he had spent two years in Botswana, from 2003 to 2005, working as a secretary for a road construction company. The job there wasn’t so exciting, though, evening entertainment for a small group of Chinese men in an African village consisted of playing each other at mah-jong, and that got old very quickly. A friend told him that with his English he should consider becoming a tour guide, so he came back to his home and took the provincial examination for guide-hood certification. He was very flattered when I complimented him on his English (“Ohh, you are just encouraging me!”)

Louis was very curious about Hong Kong. It started when I told him that we lived there, and we liked Sichuan food (and love dan-dan mian). That got him going – people sometimes say stuff but I’m guessing they don’t usually get that specific. So we talked a little about Hong Kong – the weather, the crowds, the pace of life. By mistake, TPB filled a little silence by saying, “It’s a great country.” I dug my finger into her arm and he noticed and looked away. Then, hesitantly, he turned back and said, “Can I ask you a personal question?” I was intrigued. I said “Sure!” – the American way. “In Hong Kong, do they want to stay by themselves or do they want to merge with the Mainland?”

Ah ha! I start answering, bringing all my academic and MBA waffling experience to play. We’ve only just arrived in China and I don’t really know how to pitch this one so it’s best to be as safe as possible. I went on for a bit about how opinion is divided, there are people who feel both ways, if you get something you have to give up something, and so on. He listened quietly and intently. When I finally ran out of steam, he said, “You see, here we only get to know what’s in the mass media.”

I realized, and part-remembered, that he meant the Chinese mass media.

As we neared Xi’an city and our hotel, Louis went over the next day’s program with us. We agreed with the gist of it, but told him about a couple of other requests. One, instead of the Sichuan lunch he proposed, I wanted to eat Yangrou Paoma, a local Xi’an specialty that had been recommended to me. And Two, we said that we also wanted to stop by the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This was the building that had been built for Xuan Tsang (known in India as Huien Tsang) when he’d finally returned to China from all his travels (over the Silk Road), carrying several elephant-loads of Sanskrit Buddhist scripture which he then proceeded to spend several years translating to Chinese. Louis took note of the requests looking thoughtful, and said he’d confirm them both tomorrow.

We checked in at the Bell Tower Hotel plumb spang opposite the historic Bell Tower in central Xi’an. Two receptionists filled out our forms – one was called Rena Zhang and the other bore the more esoteric name Kinsey. Their English was decent, and funnily enough even the bellhop wanted to practice his English on us. The room he led us to was strangely shaped. Like a capital L, where you entered at the foot of the smaller bar. A small alcove ahead and tiny bathroom to the left, then a left turn into the linear expanse of the room – first a seating space with two chairs to the right facing a table and mirror, then a stand jutting out into the floorspace, on which was kept a television that could be swiveled 180 degrees, then finally the double bed at the far end. Windows facing the Bell Tower, all along the right side of the room. We staked out the area and put in an intrepid request for a wake-up call at 6 am. Louis was to meet us downstairs at 8, and TPB wanted to go for a quick walk to the Islamic Quarter, apparently very near our hotel, before that. A buffet breakfast would be served from 6:30 to 8.

TPB felt hungry but we couldn’t locate a room service menu. Neither of us had the strength to attempt a telephonic interaction at that hour. She pulled out a granola bar from our emergency store, and that was that. We turned in early – our first night in China, all the adventure lay ahead.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Blogger hasn't been allowing me to title my posts for a couple of days now but if this one had a title it would have been called Romance.

On my fourteenth birthday, my parents gave me these presents. (No, this isn't headed where you think it is.) The presents were a couple of books called Foreign Devils on the Silk Road and Trespassers on the Roof of the World, written by one Peter Hopkirk, who for donkey's years had been the Central Asia correspondent for the Times. The books caught my imagination at once and I read them intently, several times. Then I did the only other thing a teenager in the pre-internet days could have done, which is I tracked down all the other Peter Hopkirk books available in India and read them all.

And that is how matters remained. Until today. When finally. In just a few hours. After ALL these years.

I set off on my own journey along the Silk Road!!!

Tonight, we spend in Xi'an -- the Capital of Cathay in those faraway times, where Xuan Tsang settled down on his return from India to finally translate the stores of Buddhist scriptures he'd collected. From there we head to Dunhuang, home of Crescent Lake and Echoing Sand Mountain, where a hundred years ago Aurel Stein morally bribed Abbott Wang by invoking the same Xuan Tsang, and made off with swathes of his enormous store of historic documents and artefacts. From there to Jiayuguan, the western extremity of the Great Wall, whence criminals were banished into the desert wilderness; all who passed picked up a pebble and threw it at the gate, if it bounced back, you knew you would one day return to China. Then an overnight train to Turpan, home of luscious grapes, and the two thousand year old city of Karakhoto discovered by Albert von le Coq. Then Urumqi, to ride a boat on the Heaven Lake made famous by Vikram Seth. And finally Kashgar, due north of Delhi, the ancient town where the Silk Road split into two, a hundred years ago the epicenter of the Great Game, where in addition to all of that we also take in the day long drive along the Islamabad highway to Lake Karakuli.

Oh, the romance!

I'll be gone a while, kids. Be good.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Heard it through the grapevine > Happy birthday

Garaj Mahal
Petaluma, CA, January 14, 2005

Permit me a little self-indulgence on the (eleventh-month) anniversary of my own favorite post. Here's to grapevines and birthdays, and storytelling and fathers, and jams and cool blues guitar.

Party on.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Following up on the echoes from ten years ago theme, and also since we're talking about Bombay banshees.


August 1997

Inside the museum infinity goes on trial
You shouldn’t take it too personal
Sooner or later one of us must know
Red paper blue checked bedsheet
Tomato salad
Didn’t realize how young you were

Take two. Fill it up again. The hammer of the rain on the window pane. Incessant unceasing insatiable driving blowing raging lusting rhythm of water flung in from Arabia to lash at my walls. And we sat with our backs to the wind, bodies fortified by concrete steel reinforcements minds wandering far and hither thrust by drunken propulsions of alcohol and recorded sound. Words phrases lines notes reached out to us by men who will never know that four such as us sat one night empathising with their thoughts their sentiments & the feelings that made them rich. I want you honey I want you so bad. And the dangling conversations, stagger sometimes, race at others, the music stops, we change the side, change the tape, get another bottle from the freezer half-half? Hang on a sec, I’ve to take a leak cool cool no problem – fuck these mosquitoes man how do you bastards manage to survive in this place remember the time when oh ya oh yes oh yes funny wasn’t it?

And we share our memories & contribute new ones to the one or two who maybe (why maybe actually definitely) had no idea what was being talked about & so the process of sharing of memories & transferring of incidents relives itself once more in its self-propagative viroid way. And we carried it on, & we know that it’ll be the same next time & every next time just as it has always been.

So I tell you a story, & he tells one, & she too chips in with a bit. All agog to tell of various little incidents that may have happened or perhaps just embellished just a little bit but what the heck it’s a good story anyhow & it fit in so well. And so I hear out your story & wait for the pause after the laughter & maybe sip my beer again & then deftly insert my did I tell you about the time when or perhaps two of us can share a little private joke & then should I tell them no you go ahead ok.

The music stops. Someone change the tape. Someone gets up. The wind rips its way through the crack in the window. We all have this lovely cozy feeling – each a million miles from home & context yet totally at ease for once in this lonely city with lonely circumstances lonely life funny isn’t it how you can rub shoulders & bodies & armpits with a hundred people every day & yet feel as if you’re all so alone turning the key to step into an empty shoebox flat. And it isn’t just you or me, is it? You and I live our lives over & over again in any number of other young people all over this city. Why this city? I’m sure, definite, they are everywhere yet in the smug consolidated comfort of my previous lives I never thought to turn the stones and look for them. But now I am one, and so, dear friend, are you.

And that is why we sit, four of us here tonight, sipping our beer fuck it’s good when chilled man & feeling good not about the beer (though putting it in the freezer was a studly idea) or the music (just perfect though if the speakers were bigger we could have played it softer) or the fact that we’re sheltered away from the wind & the water & the misery on the other side of that window there, it’s just that we feel good being with each other as in the whole is greater than the sum of the parts & we’re just building subconsciously on the very fact that we’re all there together & though we’re all different people just for one night we’re all one just like four limbs of a quadropus & we can share our experiences & laugh about our lives & superficially forget all about the pain & misery that I go through & so do you, though we all hide it so well so practiced are we at it, so good have we become.

But that superficiality is all that matters, you know, it is that that will see us through to the next occasion of bonding, be it with a totally different subset of tentacles, it is that which will recharge us till the next time whenever it is. You know, it is that very superficiality that will keep us alive when you go your way & I go mine.

Thanks, guys.


Simba, Random, and Tatoo, this one's for you.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


July 1, 1997


Seven! Shit, look! There's seven in that one. SEVEN.

Seven people standing compressed in one doorway. In one doorway of one bogey of one train. Madness. Madness.

"S, how the fuck are we ever going to survive like this?"
"I can't survive like this, boss. I can't travel like this. It's crazy."

We turn our faces back to the window. The airconditioned comfort of the Delhi-Mumbai Rajdhani Express suddenly seems ephemeral. If that's the word I want. There's this suburban train running parallel to ours. I can see at a glance about fifty-odd people traveling in that train. They are the ones hanging out of the doorways of the train, one foot in mid-air, one hand clawing tenuously the ridge on top of the gateway. I can't see anyone inside, though. It's too dark in there to see anyone. Except the guys sitting on the laps of the guys sitting on the window seat. But then, I can't see them. Half a dozen of the other.

S is gaping still. The train slows. A first class compartment comes into view. It's even more crowded than the one we first saw. If that's possible.

"I've heard..." S - transfixed - says. More to himself than to me. "I've heard that the only difference between first and second class is that they use deodorant and after-shave in first class." The tone of his voice indicates that he doesn't think this so much of a joke. Any more, that is. "Anyway, T, they're going to give us a house in Santa Cruz, and that's where the office is, and so it's okay." And with a visible effort he tears himself off from the window and turns to face me with a grin. Meet my friend, SSK. He's an optimist. And he's going to be a banker.

I smile back at him. "Thank God I'm going on to Bangalore." And we draw the curtains of our minds against the numbing sight of the local train outside, slipping in its race next to the mighty Rajdhani Express.


Written on March 2, 1998, about the morning of July 1, 1997. God damn, it's been ten years.