Nomological Net

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

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faults in the clouds of delusion

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 5, Part 1)


Jiayuguan Fort

An 8 am start, half an hour earlier than usual. Still we were at breakfast early enough – an unremarkable buffet – and then off to Jiayuguan Fort. Incredibly, the driver got lost heading out of that little town, and he and Jessica had an entertaining little altercation about it – just like a married couple. This would turn out to be a recurring feature of the day.

A decent crowd milled around outside the entrance to the Jiayuguan Fort. J went off to get our tickets while TPB and I waited, standing around. A middle-aged lady – a local vendor – tried to strike up a conversation to get us to buy something. We smiled back and thanked her. When J arrived, it struck me to ask her what proportion of the tourists here she’d estimate to be non-Chinese. She looked around pretty carefully and thought to herself, and then carefully pronounced her opinion: she thought we were the only foreigners here. No Japanese, no Koreans, just us. That felt kinda weird.

For some strange reason, despite the number of people outside, we were the first people to enter the fort complex. The approach path to the fort curved around a picturesque reed-filled moat, forming a pretty picture with the fort to one side and the snow-capped Qilian mountains away in the distance on the other side. We walked the path by the lake, taking in the suddenly stunning scenery. As we neared the fort, we were overtaken by a couple of electric-cartloads of tourists. I felt sorry for them choosing to drive and missing out on that lovely morning walk – the sort of bonus that strikes you unawares even on the most perfect of trips, making them worth the while in the moment.

Jiayuguan Fort itself, made of rammed-earth, was of a dull light-brown color. It was nowhere near as magnificent a structure as Delhi’s Red Fort, for instance, but for sure it gets points for being *the* frontier outpost. Viewed in that sense, it is simply awesome. It stands "like a man", as J described, facing the Qilian mountains with arms spread to the east and the west. We entered through the eastern gate, from the side of Empire and Civilization, the sunlight low on our backs. The first thing that struck me was how well-maintained the structure was. But of course J immediately pointed out a length of wall to our right, which had been restored recently. She called it the doufu (tofu) section, because it was so flimsy and unreliable. We strolled up the inclined entranceway past the ramparts, and inside. A performance stage with Taoist murals also featured decorations showing Buddhists in an unfavorable light – that was funny. I found the interior defense system of the fort particularly interesting. The west gate, which is from where invaders would presumably enter, led via a long, narrow passage to a 10 x 10 courtyard with high sheer walls on all sides and another equally small doorway to the right. The idea was that invaders who galloped into the courtyard would have to rein their horses and look around to see which way to go next. In that time, the defenders of the fort could close the entrance behind them, thereby trapping them in this small area from where they could be fired upon at will from above.

We went up to the ramparts. On the way up one could either take the steps, like a commoner, or ride a horse up the adjacent “wheelchair access” slope like a general would. Walking along the southern front we had our first sight of the Great Wall, low, brown, and serpentine. J made us look for the “extra brick” in the fort. The story goes that the craftsman ordered to design this fort calculated that it would take 999,999 bricks. His supervisor, to be on the safe side, ordered a round million. The super-supervisor told the craftsman, “I’ll punish you if any materials are wasted.” Of course, when the construction was completed, there was exactly one brick left over. The crafty craftsman had it placed on an eave on the western tower – and got himself off the hook by saying that the structure would collapse if it were removed.

It wasn’t that hard to find.

We went out the western gate into the desolation beyond civilization. Way away to the far left, one could see three human figures. TPB, losing track of time for an instant, wondered aloud who those people were and how they had been allowed to get there. This was the gate about which it was said that outcasts, convicts, and lunatic travelers going west would turn and throw a pebble at as they left. If the pebble bounced back, it meant they would one day return to China.

Closer to us, at the end of the incline, a few camels and horsemen were sitting around waiting for the first tourists of the day. They saw us, and they pounced, causing me to lose the moment, only recapturing the romance some time later as I replayed the day’s events in my head, for the log. The first tour group had shown up right behind us, and the folk with the animals were headed right for them, and us. A little girl got very scared and started crying. We all headed back through the west gate – camels, horsemen, and tourists.

The Great Wall on the Cliff

Back in the car, feeling groovy, I asked J if they had any music. Local music, preferably. We heard a Xinjiang man sing of his love for Urumqi and the girl that he had there – or so we gathered from the occasional line that got translated. (That struck me as a little strange, btw, since Urumqi is the only city in Xinjiang that is not Uyghur-dominant – it is almost entirely a Chinese creation.) After that, the driver skipped a few tracks until he reached one that started with a standard modern dance beat. J turned around to look at me and asked – “Do you recognize that?” I was totally flummoxed. “It’s Indian.” Well the beat was totally formulaic – could have been from anywhere in this MTV age. When the vocals came on, we couldn’t even recognize the language. TPB thought it was Arabic; I went with Central-Asian-Soviet.

We were again the first to arrive at the Great Wall on the Cliff. This is a point on the Great Wall where, as advertised, it goes over a cliff. Supposed to be “the most spectacular point” along the entire length of the wall, at this point it’s also known as the “Hanging Wall” because of the 45 degree incline of the mountainside. As I got out of the car, something called to me to buy a cowboy hat from one of the (many fewer) vendors by the road. Maybe it was the lure of the lady who’d chatted us up at the entrance to the fort, who knows? At any rate, this was the Chinese Wild West, after all. Back at the fort, the price had been 35. Here, I picked one up at the stall, a brown felt cowboy hat with an attitudinal leather strap, and the lady said 45. I put the hat down and turned to go. The lady asked Jessica something; J turned to me and said – she wants to know what price is okay for you. I did my half-plus-a-bit and said 25 (“er-sheh-wu”:-). Miraculously, the lady said okay. I got my hat. Walking away, I asked J – why did she not bargain? J told me that it’s a superstition for Chinese people – never turn the morning sale down. I filed that away for future reference.

We climbed a set of steps up a faux battlement over a stream and were up on the wall. The Real Wall. Away to the right it dropped a little before it started rising – alarmingly steeply. At its maximum incline in the distance it did indeed seem to be 45 degrees if not more. TPB’s legs had still not healed, plus we had to check out of our hotel by 12, so we didn’t have the time to climb to the top anyway. But I didn’t really care – I wanted to go as far as I could. I ran ahead of the two of them till I got to the point where the incline turned to steps, and started climbing to see how far I could go. I took the steps two at a time at first as I normally do, but soon they became narrow, and broken, and irregularly steep. I stopped for breath at the first sign that I needed to catch my breath, and looked around. Up ahead the wall veered sharply to the right then continued climbing. There was a beacon tower at the top, this I knew from seeing it from below, but I couldn’t see it now. Both sides of the wall stretched pretty much nothingness, although to my imagination there seemed to be more of it to the right to the outside of the wall. TPB and J were little insects back behind me, and the first dinky car tour bus had just drawn up. I took a few photos and headed reluctantly back down – counting 94 steps on my careful descent. By my estimate, I’d gone probably a quarter of the way up.

Lunch Again

We drove back into town, about fifteen minutes, then went up to the room for 45 minutes to pack and check out. We showered again because that night we’d spend on a train. Probably. There had been a few signs from J that all may not be quite right with our tickets for that leg of our journey. However, we hadn’t been able to figure out quite what the problem was. J just repeated that her manager would come into town to handle it, and we shouldn’t worry. Hmm.

She and the driver got lost again while driving to the restaurant. She was taking us not to one of the standard tourist places that she took her regular parties to, but to a local Sichuan restaurant (again!) called “Village of Spice”, that she’d been to with her friends. It turned out to be a decent, modern-looking joint situated at the corner of a city block, with no debris of any sort on the floor or anywhere else apparent. We got a table, rectangular for once, close to the streetside window. Beside us, a middle-aged couple came and sat at a round table set for eight. They were carrying bags full of ice cream, cigarettes, and beer – about eight bottles of beer which they placed on the counter behind them. That prompted TPB and me to add some beer to our order. I said that I’d like some jam-pi, the ginger beer that Jessica had had the previous day, and not the regular Xiliang. TPB got inspired and asked for guo-pi, fruit beer that we’d learned about at the same time. J relayed the request to the waitress and got told that they were out of fruit beer. TPB pointed to the beer sitting right there on the counter. J got feisty and said yeah, what about that one? The waitress pointed to the couple alongside and said oh no, that’s theirs. They overheard and looked round. Realizing what was happening, they very magnanimously waved across a bottle of their fruit beer to us. We smiled and thanked them, and J bought them a ginger beer in exchange. More smiling happened. I took a clandestine picture of the couple with their beer. J called me a “snake” – Chinese for someone who does things in secret. I showed her the snake photo I’d taken of her and her cousin at the Dunhuang night market; quite a nice one really, the two of them looking away and smiling with Dustin Hoffman juggling skewers in the background.

We ordered dan-dan mian (at last!), stir fried pork and beef dishes, Sichuan-style grated potatoes, and another vegetable. The food was again good but not overwhelmingly great. Also, not fiery like the Sichuan food I was used to in Hong Kong. Weird. I knew that food gets less spicy the further west one goes, but we were now *east* of Dunhuang, and not all that far from Sichuan itself either. Anyway, before hitting the car again, TPB and J walked into a supermarket to stock up on water for the ride, and I used the opportunity to snoop around the wine shelf that ran all along one side of the store. I was quite surprised to see wine, actually. The wines were all local, mainly Cabernets (to be expected, I guess), and the most expensive cost about 80 bucks only – supply and demand or a reflection on quality?

The Wei Jin Tombs, and Kicking Around

Our next stop was the Wei and Jin dynasty tombs about half an hour out of town. These are almost 1700 years old now. Only one tomb is open to the public, however, a lonely hut in the middle of nowhere. Mounds of earth pockmark the barren earth at distances around it, signaling sites of other tombs, the mountains and smokestacks of Jiayuguan forming a faraway backdrop. We checked our camera again and walked the 54 steps down the slanting corridor into the tomb – ten meters underground. A conveniently placed thermometer at the end of the passage informed us that the temperature was 13 degrees Celsius – about twenty degrees lower than on the surface.

The tomb consisted of three rooms placed in sequence. The first, about eight feet square with a low ceiling to match, was meant to represent an outside courtyard. The bricks here were painted with motifs and scenes depicting interactions with animals – farming, slaughter, etc. Two tiny little cubbyholes off on either side represented the kitchen and the stable. Stooping through the four-foot high curved archway into the next vault, we found ourselves in the similarly sized “inner courtyard”. Here on one wall the bricks were painted with ladies and their activities, such as make-up, while the other side featured men hanging out, eating, and so on. And finally through to the innermost room where the coffins had originally lain. This room had a low, arched ceiling, and the far wall had once contained precious objects inlaid into it. Off to either side were spaces for more precious objects that the denizens could carry with them into the next world. Unfortunately, at some point down the centuries, tomb robbers had carried them off into this one.

~ A short digression on the topic of tomb robbers. In cave after cave and vault after vault that we visited, I found myself wondering *what* these people may have been thinking as they carried out their acts – maybe in the thick of night, by pale lantern light, often with huge images of people – holy people, divine people, semi-people, looking on at them; other times sneaking past real dead bodies, maybe cadavers that had been gone for a hundred years or more, lifting the ornaments off skeletons. What were they thinking? I would have been scared shitless. ~

We emerged from the tomb into the bright midday sun, but it was relatively cool due to a soft breeze blowing down from the snow-capped Qilian mountains. It was 2:30 pm and our train was at 7:15. For the first time since we left Hong Kong, we had time to kill. J suggested we sit around for a bit and then head to the tomb’s tiny museum. So we sat under the shed that lay beside the tomb, and chatted desultorily. She gave me the official evaluation form that the travel agency requires her to have filled out by the client, so I got to work on that. There really wasn’t anything to circle except the highest number on almost every count: this leg of the trip—Yangguan, Mogao, the camels, Jiayuguan fort—had been beyond belief, and she had gone completely out of her way to make sure that we appreciated “her” city. Funnily enough though she said that there was no need to seal the form, in direct contradiction to what was printed in bold letters on the form itself. Louis in Xi’an had also requested that I not seal the form “so that in case there’s some problem I know how to explain it”. Later, in the car, Jessica shyly asked if she could read my ratings and comments. I said sure, go ahead. She giggled like a little child allowed to watch a PG-13 flick and then pulled the envelope out of her stylish white handbag and read it very closely and tensely. I wondered why, since I’d scored her a 5 on everything except English, where I’d given her a 4, and I’d also written very nice things about her. But still, there was an edge to her voice when she couldn’t read my handwriting on a particular word.

We had the time so when we drove back into town I asked to go to an internet café. But first, J took us to a “black jade” factory. Jade factories are known tourist traps back east, but here she claimed that the black jade was a variety specific to this region, so it was a little different. We walked around the displays – some of the handiwork really was very fine – very very thin cups indeed. J explained that when you fill a cup with clear alcohol and put it in the moonlight, the surface shimmers and the greenish tint imparted by the jade makes it look like the surface of a lake. Plus the minerals in the jade make it healthy to drink from the cup. This was good sales talk; had TPB leafing through all the dozens of designs on display, followed by a lady holding a calculator with faded keys, who assiduously pointed out 80% of the display price of whatever item we picked up. I really wanted to buy a Chinese scroll painting but there just wasn’t one that either of us really liked. Either way, we ended up getting a few small jade shot glasses shaped like oil barrels, and one pair of larger, very thin, round glasses. I was happy. They even took credit card.

On to a cybercafé. TPB protested loudly and not only refused to accompany me, but also threatened grim consequences if I took longer than my self-imposed deadline of fifteen minutes. I paid 1 RMB for half an hour’s access and sat down at one of at least fifty-odd terminals lined up in a large store-space on the second storey of a shopping center. Most of the machines were unoccupied at that hour, but a dozen or more young men sat raptly tied to their online games. I logged onto my work email account and noted the messages with satisfaction, ignoring most of them and not doing anything about the others. That would be breaking the spell. In my gmail I replied to a couple, emailed parent-type people, and briefly chatted with a cousin who was online. Then, just before leaving, I thought I’d check out news.bbc.co.uk. The machine hung for a long while, the indicator icon traveling back and forth, then returned an error message with a .cn address. BBC news is banned in China. I quietly got up and made my exit.

Back on the street, our VW Santana was not parked where I had left it. I walked up and down the street till I found it, but it was empty – no sign of either the ladies or the driver. So I decided to lean against the car and people-watch. After ten minutes or so, our driver appeared and led me to a nearby hotel where TPB and J were sitting in the cool of the lobby. I joined them in their conversation, one that somehow wended its way to birth control policies in China versus India. This is close to TPB’s area of work, so it was fascinating for me to watch the tentative interaction between the expert and the data source. J was delightedly surprised to learn that in India they tried to sew up the men. In China they’d gone for the women. She told us that since she was the third child in her family, her parents had had to go to Xinjiang to have her; they returned when she was forty days old. They were fined (“fired”) 600 RMB as well, which was a lot of money back then. Plus she didn’t get any official ID card until she was all of eight years old, at which point a new administration took over and there was a change in priorities. We listened raptly to this insight into the hidden heart of China, suddenly come alive with bare honesty in front of us.

At 5:30 we headed back to the previous day’s dumpling place for an early dinner (yes, it was *that* good). Four plates of 150 grams each – two lamb (one with celery and one with chili) and two veg (spinach with egg and leek with egg) along with a bottle of Xiliang came to 20 RMB and filled us three up nicely. The Xiliang was served in little plastic glasses that slipped into plastic holders, pick for the girls and blue for me. On the way out of the market, TPB got attracted to some roasted corn at an Uyghur merchant’s stall. I tried to read the name written in Chinese on the side -- I could follow "Baba", so I asked J whether the first bit was indeed "Ali". The merchant, hearing his name, got all excited and approached us in a hurry. J, for a lark, told him that we were from Xinjiang – that got him *really* excited. Day-dreaming, I missed my chance to flaunt my single-digit Uyghur vocabulary. *That* would really have been a hit, and I’ve been regretting it since (but I tried to not make the same mistake again as we ventured further west). Anyway, J bought TPB the corn, refusing to accept any money back from her, saying, “Forget! Forget!” We crossed the street and got into that Santana for the last time—making tracks for the railway station.

9 Comments:

Blogger Arthur Quiller Couch said...

Camels. Hats. Camera.

Indiana Jones meets Cartier-Bresson?

8/12/2007 12:31 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

Can you speak Cantonese (or even Mandarin)? Just curious...
Btw, I know that Uyghur is actually quite similar to Turkish (ummm well most Turkic languages are), except that they use the arabic sript.
Re the BBC - wondering if its banned even in Beijing, Shanghai and the other main cities. Surely not?

8/12/2007 2:13 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

aqc:
heh. i'd like to be present when that happens :-D

szerelem:
i have a smattering of cantonese, and prior to the trip even less mandarin. but i was amazed at how quickly i was picking up mandarin words.

uyghur otoh should be a piece of cake for anyone who speaks hindi and knows how turkish is inflected. (e.g., "kalam, kitaab, daftar" exist with the same meanings and are pronounced "khelem, khitab, defter".)

i think bbc news is restricted -- thinking back to my conversations with louis the guide in xi'an who couldn't get enough of my descriptions of hong kong and said more than once that "our knowledge is restricted to what we hear in the media". this despite the fact that he's the sort who loves to go online to check things out.

8/12/2007 8:14 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

Haha that’s a funny post!! (How come I missed it I wonder?)

Anyway, it’s totally true that people love for just trying to speak their language. I mean, my Turkish sucks, but I would still try and speak as much in Turkish as I could. Actually my first day in Istanbul I couldn’t understand anything at all (they speak so fast and mumble all the time!) and was so freaked out. I mean I spent time trying to learn Turkish so it was so disastrous to not understand a word. But then I was like "Oh fuck it, I’m speaking in Turkish even if my Turkish sucks". And it was great because I picked up a lot and by the end of two weeks my Turkish was loads better. And I would end up having wonderful conversations with people in all sorts of tucked away places. Oh and receive very nice discounts when I shopped too. (At the grand bazaar one guy gave me 50% off straight and I eventually managed to get him down to 70 – 75%. Hee.)

Even in Vienna, I ended speaking in Turkish to a lot of the food stall owners…as a result I would get loads of free goodies and saved up loads of lunch money :) And it would be such a relief from hearing german!

Someone I know however think trying to speak in the local language is patronising and silly. I don’t agree :D
Ok wont bore you with more silly tales from my travels!

8/13/2007 1:43 PM  
Blogger Vivek Kumar said...

Just dropped in to say that I am reading all the posts through Google Readers.. and loving every single one of them! Keep going!

8/13/2007 7:11 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

szerelem:
Haha that’s a funny post!! (How come I missed it I wonder?)

thanks :-D (maybe you decided to skip the reading for that day?)

Someone I know however think trying to speak in the local language is patronising and silly.

heck yeah. i don't agree either. at all. our experiences in xinjiang (still to come) reinforce that sentiment.

Ok wont bore you with more silly tales from my travels!

HEY! don't tell me you're stopping blogging too.

vivek:
thanks buddy - good to know :-) lots more coming up.

8/13/2007 10:50 PM  
Blogger km said...

The Taoists make fun of Buddhists? My brain just assploded.

8/15/2007 12:36 AM  
Anonymous sri said...

TR: Do you have a snap of those mocking murals? Do post, if so.

km: I guess, taoists were giving a taste of their karma to the buddhists, eh? :D
More interesting would be find buddhist murals responding to this. Then we will have a taste of duality. :)

8/15/2007 5:45 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

km, sri:
i don't remember very clearly as i wasn't paying too much attention right then, but the murals were stuff like buddhists looking in at each others' private rooms instead of sitting around meditating - that sort of stuff. i know, it doesn't sound very impressive, and it did strike me as inane then as well. tpb took a few snaps of the mainstream taoist decorations, but we didn't get any of those with buddhist monks peeping on each other combing their hair or whatever.

our guide jessica said that the buddhists had in fact replied in the same coin, but since taoism won out over buddhism over the long run, there were fewer such buddhist paintings to be seen. that also seems a little petty but then i think about the buddhist-hindu squabbles in cambodia, turning engravings of buddhas into lingams and vice versa, and then i think about ALL the not-so-nonviolent interchanges amongst various religions down the ages, and this seems a lot more likeable all of a sudden. no?

sri:
welcome to the party.

8/15/2007 12:19 PM  

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