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Copyright 2001-7 by Sue Brown & Dr.
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Tibet or Bust--Around China in 80 Days!
Author’s Note: These are notes (unedited,
so bear with me) from our October 1994 three-month 40,000 km. drive around
China. We drove up the coast and over to Mongolia, descended through the
Gobi Desert, crossed the 17,300 foot pass into Tibet, and returned to
Xiamen via S.W. China. And after 40,000 km., the only place we got stuck
was in a pothole on Xiamen University, just 300 meters from our apartment!
I hope you enjoy the journey!
Dr. Bill Xiamen University MBA Center
Clover Leafs and
Daisies More people kick off during predawn’s
preternatural cold silence than at any other time, so perhaps it was an
inauspicious hour to kick off our trip. As we sped out of Xiamen on the
morning of June 24th, 1994, our motto “Tibet or Bust,” we
almost kicked off more than the trip.
Our 50 mph speed on Xiamen’s new 6 lane highway was a welcome relief
from the 15 mph we usually crept at on highways and low ways alike –
until we reached the new cloverleaf. The ramp rose into the darkness and
– vanished! I screeched to a halt, and inched up to its edge. It
was unfinished, and led to a 30 foot drop off. The only warning was a
chunk of wood with a smeared chalk scrawl, but it had fallen over.
I wondered how many Chinese drivers were already pushing up daisies under
that cloverleaf. It was a good reminder that caution was in order if we
were to survived the remaining 39,995 km of our 40,000 km journey.
We crossed Xiamen Island’s causeway, then drove up the coast, past
Marco Polo’s ancient port of Quanzhou, and Fuzhou, the provincial
capital in the north. We spent a restful night in the tiny town of Luoyan,
where a two room suite in the newly renovated hotel set us back only $9;
they were obviously new at the tourist game. At daybreak, we continued
our drive northward, winding up and down and around mountains and through
Fujian’s deep, forested valleys, past terraced fields dotted with
villages, temples and enough steepled churches to give it the feel of
an Asian New England.
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None too soon we left Fujian behind us and entered Zhejiang Province,
where we headed inland towards LiShui (beautiful water) town – aptly
named! On the very short outskirts of the very small town, we pulled off
onto a sand bar beside a shimmering river the hue of turquoise in Navajo
jewelry. The four of us waded through the rocks garnering bright green,
red and purple pebbles. The shy, barefooted peasants in their bright scarves
and not so bright blue Mao pants and shirts watched us for awhile, perplexed,
and then they too began sifting through the river bed. When they offered
us the smooth, jade colored rocks they had collected, I thought they were
trying to sell them, but not the case. They had no idea why we wanted
worthless rocks, but they had decided to help us out anyway. Aiyah! Foreigners!
After a grueling 15 hour day of driving, we finally sighted Hangzhou across
a river. So close and yet so far. In spite of directions from half a dozen
people, it took two hours to cover the last 5 kilometers.
China has a dearth of traffic signs, even on major highways, so Shannon
and Matthew worked the compass, I worked the map, and Sue second-guessed.
This worked in the countryside, where there weren’t usually more
than two roads to choose from anyway, but cities, with their one-way streets
and dead ends, were another ball game.
The problem is that the locals responsible for erecting signs don’t
and so don’t erect them. The few token signs that they do put up
point to one-ox towns that outsiders have never heard of and aren’t
looking for. The fact that natives already know how to find such one-ox
towns confirms the futility of signs. When we did find signs, quite often
they pointed the wrong directions, and in the remote mountains of Sichuan,
near Tibet, peasants put workaday signs like, “Dangerous Curve Ahead,”
to better use by painting over them, “Firewood!” or, “Eat
Here!” After all, locals already knew about the curve and it wasn’t
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Asking directions is never a simple recourse, because no one ever pleads
ignorance. You ask and face dictates that they answer, whether they know
or not. We always queried 2 or 3 people and shot for a consensus, and
even then we were thrown for a few loops (one that took us back towards
Tibet when we had spent a week trying to get out of Tibet, and delayed
us 3 days).
A year earlier, during a trek around Fujian Province, one of my Chinese
friends had asked a Nanping native the whereabouts of our hotel. When
he pointed to the left, I warned my friend, “Ask someone else. He’s
“How do you know?” my skeptical passenger demanded.
“Because he hesitated and looked both directions before he answered.
He’d never make playing poker.”
Sure enough, the hotel was to the right, not the left.
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Hooked on Hangzhou “Heaven
above, Hangzhou and Suzhou below!” Or so goes the ancient saying.
Hangzhou is a wonderland of gardens, lakes and forests. And in 1994 it
may have been the cleanest city in China. I asked a man on the street,
“With so many tourists, how do you keep the place so clean?”
He laughed. “If we treated Hangzhou like a garbage dump, tourists
would do likewise. But we respect Hangzhou and keep it clean, and so do
The Silk Museum was our favorite attraction, with its
display of ancient and modern silks, and detailed explanations of various
silk making techniques. I had no idea there were so many kinds of silkworms;
they dine not just on white mulberry leaves but also on oak leaves, osage
orange leaves, and lettuce. Hold the tomatoes.
The museum’s pretty young guides collected half a dozen silk worms,
placed them in a shoebox lined with fresh mulberry leaves, and presented
it to the boys. The worms, of course, outlasted the mulberry leaves, forcing
us into a life of crime as, over the following days, we snitched leaves
from roadside trees until the worms had spun their silky cocoons.
Weeks later, as we cruised along the arid heights of the Tibetan-Qinghai
plateau, the moths emerged and flew around inside the van, to the boys’
delight, and I wondered what Tibetans thought when silk moths showed up
on their welcome mats.
Chinese have treasured silk for millennia. Over 6,000 years ago, in Banpo,
near Xi’an, artisans designed pottery bowls with gauze prints using
silk. In Wuxing county, archaeologists have dug up herringbone silk belts
and silk thread buried over 4,700 years ago. Silkworm breeding was already
a major industry 3,000 years ago, during the Shang Dynasty. The emperor
assigned a special agricultural official to supervise silkworm production,
and sacrificed three cows or six sheep to the Goddess of Silk Worms to
insure an ample harvest of cocoons.
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Modern technology has made vast improvements in silk production techniques.
Silkworm raisers used to paste pictures of cats on the egg-tray to scare
away mice. Today, they supposedly get better results by playing recorded
Science has also helped silkworm growers fight age-old diseases. To prevent
the spread of the muscardine plague, silkworm growers used to immediately
swallow whole any infected cocoons discovered during their daily inspections.
Today they simply apply an anti-muscardine powder (though some might still
eat the cocoons since muscardine-infected silkworms are supposed to be
good for treating headache, sore throat, convulsions and tuberculosis).
After three days in Hangzhou, we wound our way up a road that slithered
like a black snake along the tight curves that garrote Mo Gan Mountain.
The trees and bushes waved in the balmy breezes that, before Liberation,
made Mo Gan Mountain a favorite haunt for wealthy foreign colonialists
seeking respite from the heated plains below.
Giant bamboo blanketed the mountains so thickly that they appeared to
be covered with giant green feathers, waving in the wind. But when the
road led us beneath the towering bamboo, they became verdant cathedrals,
or an endless living tunnel opening into the preternatural light that
in the end none escape.
As we inched around the hairpin curve, the bamboo cover sometimes gave
way to a magnificent view of Swiss-looking villages, their wooden shingled
homes with their carved wooden balconies nestled in the alpine valleys
far below. I could have happily spent a summer on MoGan Mountain, but
we were already behind schedule, and after too brief a stay we pushed
on to the Great Ditch.
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Grand Canal We descended
from the lofty retreat of MoGan Mountain and reentered the plain and the
furnace, where we followed the Grand Canal to Suzhou. This busy waterway,
almost a 1,000 kilometers in length, is still congested with hundreds
of “water trains”-- low-slung concrete barges, strung together
ten or more, plying the waterways with cargoes of construction materials,
coal, grain, produce.
Ancient cities, like Rome, London, and Alexandria in the West, or Xi’an,
Hangzhou, Nanjing and Beijing in China, flourished because of their proximity
to water. But ancient Chinese went a step further. Great natural rivers
linked ten Chinese provinces, but these waterways flowed mainly from West
to East. Traders going North or South were out of luck. So Chinese made
their own rivers.
In the 5th century B.C., China began construction of a great North-South
canal system that not only facilitated transportation but also allowed
irrigation of fields and expansion of food production for China’s
already burgeoning population. The construction continued 1,800 years,
and eventually covered 1800 kilometers.
Canal construction was on and off, but it reached its height during the
Sui Dynasty (581-618). As much as possible, canal architects made use
of existing lakes and rivers, connecting them with 7 canals.
In 605, Emperor Yangdi ordered a million laborers to dig the Tongji Canal
– not so much to improve commerce as to tighten his political control
and to make it easier to transport the taxes, cloth, and grain that he
exacted from his subjects. In that same year, another 100,000 laborers
were ordered to expand the Hangou Canal. Both these canals were 60 to
70 meters in width, and both canals were lined on either side with poplar
Chinese still follow their ancient practice of lining roads and canals
with greenery. Before a new road or highway or canal or ditch is finished,
crews of laborers are busy planting hundreds of trees up either side,
and down the grassy median. These saplings are often to replace the hundreds
of ancient, beautiful trees destroyed during construction, but in the
long run, it is invariably aesthetically pleasing. And that’s how
Chinese look at things – the long run. The very long run.
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Though Chinese woodsmen may appear a bit cavalier with the run of the
mill pine or scrub oak, they almost never dig up a giant banyan or oak
tree, even for a major highway. They detour around, and not out of some
superstitious reverence for trees but out of sheer respect for an ancient
life. It’s refreshing to see a six lane highway making way for a
tree. Though the curves could be a little gentler. It’s disconcerting
to be driving along at 60 mph and come up on a 70 degree curve around
a 500 year old banyan tree. Though it may be Comrade Kato’s way
of securing a steady supply of quality fertilizer for brother banyan.
Three years after Emperor Yangdi began the Tongji canal, he called up
yet another million ditch diggers to work on the Yongji Canal, and 3 years
later, in 611, the Emperor surveyed his sparkling new canal in a four-deck
dragon boat over 13 meters high and 59 meters long, with a retinue of
tens of thousands of men aboard several thousand ships and smaller boats.
Within two centuries the Chinese government had developed strict administrative
and shipping regulations, and were controlling water flow with highly
advanced reservoirs and double locks much like those in use today, 1,000
years later – and fully five hundred years before the first lock
was built in the West in Italy, in 1481.
Alas, the Grand Canal, like the corrupt Qing Dynasty, began to deteriorate
at the end of the 18th century, largely because of poor water management
and corrupt officials who neglected their duties and took bribes from
ever larger and overloaded smuggling vessels. In 1902, Qing rulers dismissed
the water management officials and abandoned canal transport entirely,
and rail transportation took over. It wasn’t until after Liberation
in the 1950s that the canal was restored to make water transportation
once again feasible, though by the 1950s China had little left to transport.
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Highway Jailbait Highway
hypnosis is a rare affliction in China, what
with the constant dodging of people and pigs and cows and chickens and
cyclists and kamikaze cabbies and truckers. But the monotonous scenery
(for the Grand Canal is magnificent, but it is very long, and water trains
pretty much lose their novelty after you’ve seen 6 dozen) and the
smooth highway nearly lulled me to sleep until a policeman flagged me
back into reality and informed me sternly that I had passed in a no-passing
zone. But he let me off with just a warning and turned his attention to
the other two dozen cars and trucks he had pulled over.
It is no wonder highway police catch more illegal passes than an NFL player.
Slow vehicles, like trucks and farm tractors, though supposed to hug the
right, invariably hog the center, crawling at 3 to 5 mph and forcing motorists
to either make a career of tailing them or to pass illegally. Police lurk
along the slimy slug trails, waiting. I’ve never once seen these
mechanized snails pulled over, but pass them and you’re jail bait.
Venice of Asia I regret relegating Suzhou, the famous,
canal-lined “Venice of Asia,” to one paragraph, but the place
was so oppressively hot that the most memorable thing about our 3 day
stay was the “3 Star” Suzhou Hotel’s A/C; or more precisely,
the lack of A/C.
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Lukecool A/Cs We had forgotten that Chinese hotels install
central A/C in lieu of window A/Cs not for their guests’ benefit
but for their own--to keep power bills down. The rooms were stifling by
day, and by night the management shut off the air altogether, intoning
the litany we hear on trains: "A/C is unhealthy at night." Although
we enjoyed exploring Suzhou’s magnificent rock gardens, winding
streets, and narrow canals, 3 days was all we could take, and we fled
north to Nanjing--out of the frying pan, and into the fire.
Southern Capital Nanjing was, for a time, the capital
of China (Bei jing means “Northern capital,” and Nan jing
means “Southern capital”), and we wished we’d allotted
more than one day for touring it, but Tibet was still weeks away.
Nanjing is a stately, immaculate city, with tree-canopied avenues, ancient
buildings, modern plazas, and classical parks and gardens. It is also
home to the world famous Nanjing Theological Seminary, which we visited
briefly, though it was Sunday and no one was about.
The staid city really came to life at night. Trees and shrubs and buildings
were festooned with festive strings of Christmas lights, which Chinese
everywhere enjoy year round. Streets and night markets bustled with shoppers
haggling over imported jeans and T-shirts, famous Nanjing gem stones,
fried chicken. And fried people.
In the Furnace One of China’s "4 furnaces,”
Nanjing was over 100 degrees. At least 10 people died of heatstroke the
week prior to our arrival. After one night in a university guesthouse,
which boasted an asthmatic central air conditioner that wheezed lukecool
air by day and nothing at all by night, we headed north to China’s
Bavaria, Qingdao – with a detour to Jiangsu Province’s Donghai,
site of China’s largest crystal market.
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We hoped to make some additions to our mineral collection back home, but
we almost abandoned that idea when we discovered that the road was a pockmarked,
one-lane dirt path through rice paddies, and Donghai was still 79 kilometers
away. We finally girded our loins and took the plunge, but it wasn’t
much of a drop. After only 15 km, the path broadened into a beautiful
two-lane, tree-lined country road.
Sue created a sensation buying fruit from farmers who had never seen foreigners.
They laughed excitedly and talked a mile a minute while Sue paid so little
for a bag of beautiful apricots that she felt guilty. When she tried to
pay a little extra, they refused – and instead threw a few more
apricots in our bag.
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Crystal Clear At Donghai's famous Crystal Market, we
bought a few natural crystal formations. A few months later, when we showed
them to a Xiada professor, he argued, “There is no way those are
natural!” He pointed to the quartz crystals jutting from a chunk
of quartz in a fountain of frozen light, and said, “Stone workers
carved this and fooled you into buying it.”
“Really?” I showed him a large rock that Shannon had found
in the crystal quarry of Hainan Island. “Is this natural?”
“Yes, but that’s just a rock!”
I flipped the ordinary chunk of quartz over to reveal perfect hexagonal
quartz crystals. My colleague gasped. My ardently atheistic friend carefully
studied the collection of crystals we have under glass, displayed on black
velvet and illuminated by a hidden florescent bulb, and concluded, “These
aren’t natural, they’re supernatural!”
The psalmist said, “The heavens declare the handiwork of God.”
So does everything under the heavens, and under the earth as well. Nothing
surpasses the elegant artistry of natural crystals – the prismatic
blocks of pink rhodonite, and calcite crystals, steel-gray metallic stibnite
crystals, cubes of halite (the not so common table salt), octahedral blue,
green and violet fluorite crystals, and emerald-like crystals of apatite
(which is taken from the Greek word meaning “to deceive” because
its colors and forms easily fool amateurs). And my favorite -- the purplish
quartz called amethyst.
The book of Revelation likens the light and the sea of the New Jerusalem
to crystal, but this life already has crystals of quick frozen Light for
mortal enjoyment and a foretaste of visual feasts to come.
We left Donghai’s crystal market in search of a reasonably priced
hotel, but the local establishments were obviously used to cadres on expense
accounts. While Uncle Song could afford $50 U.S. per night, we could not
– especially when the prices were doubled for foreigners. About
2:00 a.m. we abandoned our search, pulled into a truck stop, and spent
the night in our van.
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For Whom The Road Tolls
We pulled out of the truckstop at daybreak and made our way up the coast
to the former German colony of Qingdao, perched precariously on the eastern
tip of Shandong Province. We spent 3 days in a colonial-era guesthouse
that was like a slice of Bavaria served up on china, and we combed the
beaches, and sampled authentic Shandong Chinese dumplings in the small
stalls and restaurants nestled between Bavarian homes and cathedrals.
And then we hit the road again, our sights set on Beijing.
Happily, the northbound road was a new expressway, off limits to non-motorized
vehicles and pedestrians (though many farmers jumped the fences or cut
the wires to cross the highway or to sell melons to motorists). It was
almost highway heaven. Almost. I slowed down at a large, “Exit,
Gas!” sign, only to slide to a stop at the 20 foot drop off. Nice
sign, but no ramp yet. Shades of Xiamen cloverleafs!
At only 55 yuan, the Qingdao Freeway’s toll was a bargain. We did
250 miles in six hours, a full 60 miles more than we usually averaged
in ten to twelve hours. But all too soon we exited highway heaven and
reentered reality. Shannon whipped out his little compass, sighted north,
and we headed towards a toll bridge and, hopefully, Beijing.
Every county and one-ox town in East China is vying to build the most
beautiful, modern, glass and bathroom tile tollbooths, many boasting 4
and 6 lanes. But invariably they barricade all but one lane, and force
traffic to jostle through it like cattle through a chute while one attendant
takes the toll and the others sip tea and contemplate the backed up traffic.
The tollbooth is often on the passenger side because, unlike in America,
most vehicles have passengers. But since the driver is usually the one
that pays, the money must pass between the driver, the passenger, and
the toll taker. To further slow things down, the table of tolls, which
explains how much for each class of vehicle, is usually small, and faces
the toll booth, not the incoming cars, so you have no way to prepare correct
change in advance. And if there’s no sign at all, you have to wait
until they’ve sized you up and levied whatever toll they think they
can get out of you.
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People don’t often line up to get on or off a bus, or to buy stamps,
or to deposit money in a banking account – and drivers don’t
line up at tolls. As you approach the tollbooth you must be carefully
tailgate the car in front, because if you leave the slightest gap, drivers
trying to jump the line from both sides will squeeze in front, using the
‘zipper’ technique. And once he’s nosed in, you’ll
never recover ground because he has a line of nose to bumper line jumpers
After you pay the toll, you drive forward 20 feet to show your receipt
to yet another officer, and then you cross to the other side of the bridge,
where yet a third person checks your stub. Three stops, and fifteen minutes,
to cross a 500 meter bridge. But things are improving. In ‘93, I
spent over ten hours trying to navigate a Guangdong traffic jam, but a
year later a beautiful new beltway got me around the entire city in only
But it took 15 minutes to pay the toll.
We eventually made it across the toll bridge and cruised down a peaceful,
tree-lined country road, pulling up at dusk in front of a small military
guesthouse. The soldiers had never seen a foreign family drive up in a
Toy Ota but they were hospitable, the room was fairly nice, and they had
window A/Cs, which we inspected carefully before we paid our deposit.
Then we plopped on the bed in front of the A/C and enjoyed cool air every
bit of ten minutes before the malevolent machine coughed, sputtered, wheezed
and ground to a halt. The officer in charge apologized, though, and found
us another room, and we slept the sleep of the dead. Not a good choice
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The road through Hebei Province was, for the most part, a wide, well paved
highway, with a grassy median, and tree lined bike paths up both sides
– but there was no on ramp for the Tianjin highway. I plunged the
van off the side of the road and slogged through mud, passing trucks mired
up to their axles. When we reached the bottom we were told by a stranded
trucker that the only way to get onto the freeway was to go back up the
muddy embankment and backtrack ½ an hour to an intersection we
had missed earlier, as it had no markings. It is a lot harder slogging
up a mudslide than down it, especially in a 2-wheel drive van. It took
half an hour to gain the top again. I backtracked, found the elusive intersection,
and headed north to the Tianjin Beltway.
The problem with beltways is finding the buckle. If you get lost you can
go in circles forever. I circled the entire Tianjin beltway twice before
I saw the exit for the Tianjin-Beijing highway. But it was a beaut, rivaling
anything in America.
As we approached Beijing, we saw a gang of youth standing on an overpass.
They had cut the chain-link fence and as we passed beneath them they rained
rocks and trash on us. And nails. Our first flat tire in days. I reported
the delinquents at the tollbooth but the official shrugged apathetically.
It wasn’t his car, after all. But at least Chinese youth only use
rocks, trash, and nails, not guns. So far, anyway. With enough American
television, that might change.
We were so relieved to reach, at last, the beautiful Beijing beltway –
only to discover that it was closed for road construction. All traffic
was forced into a tiny detour.
We inched down a tiny alley past bicycles and pedicabs, between fruit
and vegetable vendors, and eventually reached a dead end. Not a sign in
sight. It took us 2 hours to reach our hotel, which was only two miles
from where we’d left the freeway.
Road construction notwithstanding, our third trip to Beijing was as enjoyable
as the first two. We again visited our favorites -- the Beijing Zoo, the
Forbidden City, Tiananmen, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, Baskin
Robbins 31 Flavors (they only had 9, but whose counting?), Wangfujing
tourist shops and bookstores, and the largest Mcdonalds in the world (which
was later razed, along with everything else on Wangfujing road, when they
built a large mall).
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Off The Great Wall Chinese
say you are not a real man until you’ve climbed the Great Wall (called
the “Long Wall” in Chinese). Now even Susan is a real man.
Which is just as well since she wears the pants in the family.
‘Great’ is an understatement for this structural wonder, which
for a thousand years protected China and shielded the Silk Road, allowing
a millennia of trade from Xi’an to Istanbul. Contrary to popular
belief, the wall was built to keep out not the Tartars but their horses.
After all, any determined warrior with ropes and ladders could scale an
isolated section under cover of darkness. But getting horses over the
wall was another matter. And while Tartars on horseback were invincible,
on foot they were no match for Chinese warriors, who in short order made
Tartar sauce of them.
The Great Wall’s total length, if you add all the sections built
over the centuries, is supposedly 50,000 kilometers. The walls, trenches,
thousands of beacon towers and forts were all built, wherever possible,
of local materials, and had they used that material to built a wall five
meters high and one meter thick, it would have encircled the earth over
ten times. I can’t imagine what kind of toll they’d have charged
for that one.
The oldest section, about 500 km. long, was built in the 5th Century B.C.,
and stretched from Qingdao on the coast to Jinan. During the Qin Dynasty,
300,000 soldiers and hundreds of thousands of conscripted civilians spent
9 years completing the wall by linking older sections. Qin and Han dynasty
law required that every man spend a minimum of one year of his life building
or guarding the Wall. In 555 A.D., 1.8 million people were conscripted
to build a 450 km section in Shanxi. Millions of soldiers and criminals
also did their part. Han Dynasty records reported that corpses crowded
the wilderness and blood flowed thousands of miles. The Ming dynasty poet
Li Mengyang wrote, “Half of the men conscripted now lie dead before
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Few people know that China’s bloody Boxer Rebellion (circa 1900)
was touched off by an Off the Wall joke in Colorado. In 1899, 4 news reporters
from the Denver Post, Time, Republican and Rocky Mountain News, desperate
for a Sunday story, decided to invent one. They picked China, because
it was a long way off and no one would check up on it. On Sunday morning,
all 4 rags carried the story that China was tearing down the Great Wall
to demonstrate its openness to trade. The Times headline read, “Great
Chinese Wall Doomed! Peking Seeks World Trade!”
Newspapers worldwide picked up on the story. It was a real laugh –
until it reached the Chinese, who were furious upon hearing that the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers was coming to tear down their Great Wall. It was
the last straw for a secret group in Beijing already fed up with foreigners.
They attacked foreign embassies in Beijing, killed hundreds of missionaries,
and within months 12,000 foreign soldiers were in Beijing to stamp out
the short-lived Boxer Rebellion.
In Beijing’s outskirts, North of the Great Wall but still South
of the Siberian Ceiling, we were Floored at our discovery of rarely frequented
tourist sites such as the valley of petrified trees, which we found at
the end of 8 hours of winding roads and valleys.
Toy Ota on the Runway One stretch of road that angled
off to the left, in a narrow, secluded valley, looked remarkably broad
and straight, so I took it, hoping to find a shortcut through the maze
of mountains. I drove several hundred meters, amazed at how nice a road
the government had put up for such an out of the way place.
Then I noticed rows of Chinese Air Force jet fighters lined up on both
sides, covered with camouflaged netting. I slammed on the brakes, spun
about, and raced back the way we’d come. We drew stares but, fortunately,
After too brief a week in Beijing, I asked several police if the roads
between Beijing and Mongolia were open to foreigners, and passable. They
looked surprised. “Of course they’re open. Not very good though.
Thus armed with a semblance of official permission, we set off for Mongolia.
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"To know what is ahead, ask those
who are returning." Chinese proverb
"Be careful whom you ask." Bill Brown
Mongolian Time Machine
We shed centuries as we drove through villages and cattle towns, leaving
clouds of dust in our wake. Colorfully decked out Mongolian ponies were
hitched to every post. Corrals were packed with horses and cows, and auctioneers
dickered with buyers attired in Mongolian garb, replete with hats, high
black boots and daggers dangling from belts. Disney could not have done
We navigated plains and valleys and mountains, once stopping to talk to
a wizened old prospector, one of thousands of peasants panning for gold
in a riverbed just downstream from a state-run gold mining operation.
He eyed us suspiciously, but finally allowed us a furtive peek at the
tiny flecks of gold hidden in his thumb-sized Tiger Balm tin, and then
he turned his attention back to his beloved pan of mud.
An interesting but exhausting 15 hour day of driving brought us to the
Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot. We were tired, dirty, and disillusioned,
and the surly attitudes of hotel officials confirmed our desire to get
out of Mongolia as quickly as we had gotten in. But once we escaped the
tourist traps, fascination won out over fatigue. We chatted with the friendly
Mongolians and Han Chinese we met on the streets, in shops, and in the
small, clean, family restaurant where we ate an interesting mix of Mongolian
mutton and noodles, and Chinese stir fried vegetables and rice.
In the evenings, we strolled through the park and watched parents playing
with their children, couples stargazing with telescopes, and elderly lovers
dancing to the music of a lively Mongolian band.
We left Hohhot in a much better frame of mind and body, and we determined
to avoid allowing the frustrations and fatigue of our stressful journey
to warp our impressions of people and places. We were, once again, in
love with China – for about half a day.
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Now a crucial decision: head West into the barren, hostile terrain of
West Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, or return to Beijing and Big Macs?
I surveyed both police and Mongolian truckers about the next stretch of
road: under construction? bandit-infested? (illegal bandits, not the legal
toll booth bandits). I also asked if it were open to foreigners, though
in all of China, no authorities ever hindered us in any way (except those
in Fujian Province, who had forbidden us to make the trip, but given the
dangers we encountered, we came to appreciate their concern for our safety,
and respected them for taking a stand).
From Hohhot we headed West to Baotou, heeding warnings that we never drive
at night unless in a convoy. We were also warned about Mongolian bandits
near Baotou. Armed with dogs and Russian rifles, they prey on unwary travelers.
But we made it through Baotou with only a minor encounter with an ineffectual
wannabe thief, and we spent the night in Dongsheng, just north of Genghis
Our 6 year old China guide book warned that local officials were suspicious
of foreigners, but from the friendly reception of locals on the street,
we suspected the book was out of date. It was not.
While the rest of China seems to have opened up to foreigners, Dongsheng
officials are as suspicious as ever. The hotel staff photocopied our residence
permits and then refused to return the originals. Then a security official
curtly ordered me to fill out the forms again. He took the second set
of forms and returned a full hour later and demanded that I fill out yet
another set of forms for the boys, which I refused to do unless they returned
our I.D.s. I also told him, politely of course, that Dongsheng had not
changed one iota since the China guidebook had blasted them six years
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That evening, our pretty hotel waitresses tried to make amends by giving
the boys two complimentary cans of fruit juice, and I photographed them
with the boys, promising to mail copies. The ice was broken until I created
a cold front by asking the statuesque beauty who looked like a Chinese
Linda Carter, "Are you Mongolian?”
“Of course not!” she exclaimed huffily. “I am Han Chinese!”
And she flicked her long hair over her shoulder and stalked off.
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"Two roads diverged in a desert,
and I -- I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the mess." Dr. Bill
Gobi Desert Sand Traps and Khan
Artists The next morning, after a brief tour of Ghengis Khan’s
mausoleum and museum, we blissfully headed south, descending into one
of the most savage, desolate, regions on earth -- a paradise for the robber
bands who have infested the desert for centuries, exacting tribute from
caravans and, as luck would have it, Toy Ota vans.
The road rapidly deteriorated from crumbly asphalt to gravel to dirt to
sand – deep, soft, and piled up on both sides, so high that there
was no hope of turning around, much less backing up. The wheels plowed
deeper and deeper into a white sea of dunes that shifted and crawled like
Mojave side-winders. How I wished for a four wheel drive. Or better yet,
“Bill, are you sure this is the road?”
“Sue, the hotel clerk said it was, and two truckers confirmed it.
The only other road is a 200 km detour. This should not take long.”
An hour later, the road was but a faint trail through the dunes. “Are
we still headed south, Shannon?”
The van was bouncing like a yo-yo as Shannon struggled to get a fix on
the compass. He eventually said, “Yes, dad. Sort of.”
The July desert sun reflected off the shifting white dunes, baking my
brain and my eyeballs, but the grinning bleached skulls of nameless creatures
warned me of our fate if I stopped. An hour later we saw a jeep approaching
through a cloud of dust – the second vehicle we’d seen in
4 hours. I flagged him down and asked if the road improved up ahead. The
driver grinned and the desert sun shone off two gold teeth. “Great
May the fleas of the Khan’s camels infest that Khan artist’s
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Hour after hour, we plowed deeper into a sterile wasteland that was so
still the very earth had ceased to breathe. I began to imagine movement
in the dunes and the crevices. Every time I crested a dune I prayed for
green and was rewarded with white – row upon row of dunes stretching
infinitely into the distance, and I could see why Chinese see white as
a symbol not of purity but of death. I felt, not for the first time in
China, trapped in a Twilight Zone set, traversing an infinite desert of
To avoid sinking into the powder I plowed as fast as possible over the
bone-jarring path, over and around dunes, until we sank to our axles in
a dune that was so high and loose it did not seem natural. And it wasn’t.
On many steep ascents, we had passed makeshift road barriers erected by
desert robber bands committed to relieving unwary drivers of the burden
of excess cash. I had determined to crash any closed gates, but not even
Arnold Palmer would have been prepared for this Gobi desert sand trap.
I could not slow down, or back up, so Toy Ota plowed in up to her axles
in the suspicious mound of sand.
Our spirits sank faster than our tires. It was the middle of the blazing
Gobi desert, in July, and not a soul in sight--until we slogged to a halt,
whereupon a dozen souls popped out of the sand like Jacks in the Desert.
Stuck vehicles were their stock in trade. And knowing something of the
history of Gobi desert robbers, I was not entirely relieved to make their
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Dambin Jansang, The Avenger Lama
The name of Dambin Jansang, the “Avenger Lama,” still strikes
terror into the hearts of elderly desert dwellers who believe that he
yet lives. A master of disguises, Dambin never allowed those around him
to know where his actual dwelling was, and some believe that even if he
is dead, his spirit still haunts the wastelands.
A Western Mongolian born in Russia, his revolutionary activities landed
him in a Russian prison early on, but he escaped and fled to Tibet, where
he studied Buddhist metaphysics and Tantric mysticism.
In 1900, he returned home, claiming to be the reincarnation of Amursana.
Mongolians whispered excitedly around their campfires that the new god
would unite them to create a new Mongolian nation, and in 1911, Dambin
led the Mongols in an attack against the Chinese garrison of Kobdo. After
taking the town, he slaughtered every Chinese and Moslem inhabitant, and
personally performed a ritualistic murder of ten people, smearing their
blood on the troops’ standards as a sign of victory.
When Cossacks captured him in 1914, they found his seats in his tent covered
with the hides of his two enemies whom he had skinned alive. He was imprisoned,
released again, and eventually murdered by Baldan Dorje, a Mongolian chief
who stabbed him, then strode out of his tent and, to the robbers’
horror, swallowed Dambin Jansang’s bloody heart, which supposedly
made him invincible. When he attacked a supposedly impregnable fortress,
the entire enemy garrison simply fled in terror.
Baldin Dorje impaled Dambin Jansang’s head on a stake and paraded
it throughout Mongolia, but many refused to believe Dambin was dead. I
suspect he now shares a condo in Calcutta with Elvis.
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Exhumed As Dambin Jansang’s
descendants surrounded us, I wiggled out from underneath the van where
I had been lying in the baking sand trying to extricate us with a small
hand trowel - a great implement for beach play but less than adequate
for major excavations.
“What’s up?” they asked in Mongolian accented Mandarin.
“Oh, diggin’ a hole to the States,” I said, borrowing
They didn’t laugh. They gawked at my blond hair and beard and asked
if I was Chinese.
“I live in China,” I answered.
One of them knelt to get a better look at me. On this broiling summer
day, he wore cast off military fatigues over 3 or 4 layers of other cast
off clothing, and a blue cotton sweat suit under all that. Just the sight
of him made me sweat. His hair was long and unkempt and dangled over one
eye, making up for the eye patch that any decent pirate of the desert
would keep in his kit. His dark eyes peered at me from the shadows of
his blue Mao cap, which he wore at a rakish angle. He favored me with
a lopsided grin; he had 3 gold teeth, but he had to curl his lip worse
than Elvis to display them to full advantage, especially the tooth tucked
to the right. He sized me up, then said, “You need some help?”
“Naw, I’ll manage.” And I smiled, and I hoped they would
not try to open the van, where Sue and the boys were cringing inside.
“It will take a long time to dig out with that spoon.”
“It’s not a spoon, it’s a trowel. And I’m in no
“We’ll push you out for 50 yuan.”
Seven dollars was not a big price to save our four lives, but I also knew
they’d deliberately set the trap, and I did not want to give in
too easily, lest they suspect we were loaded. And I remembered the Chinese
“Never show fear before the pack.” I smiled and said, “Too
expensive! I’ll give you 20 yuan.”
The man said, “Done!” He gave me an enigmatic smile, then
signaled his band of cohorts, who waded through the sand and took up their
positions behind the van. As I climbed into the driver’s seat and
shifted the van into neutral, I thought, “They sure aren’t
much at bargaining.”
A heave and a ho and we were exhumed from our sandy tomb and we sailed
over the top of the dune – and sank right into the twin of the dune
behind us. Before the dust had settled our rescuers were at the door,
grinning. Gold Tooth said, “And now, friend, the remaining 30 yuan?”
“Are there any more dunes after this one?” I asked suspiciously.
“No, no!” He held his hand up, as if swearing on the Koran,
and said, “There are only these two!”
I believed him, and when I laughed, the whole band burst into laughter.
I paid the 30 yuan, and he thanked me, and winked. I half expected him
to doff his cap and bow, for in spite of his rags he carried himself with
style, like a Mongolian version of Errol Flynn, that gallant swashbuckler
of the silver screen. My account settled, they once again demonstrated
their prowess and I sailed off down the desert, thanking them and their
ancestors and praying I’d not need their services again.
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By now the van’s interior was a shambles. Shaken and bounced like
Dorothy and Toto in a Taiwanese twister, our shelves had collapsed, food
containers had burst open, and all three of my passengers were in tears,
wishing they were in Kansas or Oz or anywhere but Mongolia. I too had
had more than my share of sand.
I always fancied that I shared the Arab’s serene love of the desert.
I’ve watched Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia 4 times,
and I’ve pored over back issues of dog-eared Arizona Highways. I’ve
even driven through Death Valley and serenely contemplated its lethal
loveliness --but always from the comfort of an air conditioned car, on
a smooth blacktop, with call phones every 10 miles, and gas stations and
fast food outlets. Security is the seed of serenity, and now we had neither,
as I wrested creaking Toy Ota through the sadistic sands of the Gobi.
My wife and small sons clung to each other in the back, eyes squeezed
shut, and the gas gauge flirted with empty, and there was no greenery
or people or even road in sight, and I felt not serenity but despair.
“We’re almost there!” I shouted to my three passengers,
but I had no idea just exactly where there was, or in what direction to
find it. The sun was to my right most of the time, but the path curved
and twisted back upon itself so often that I had a sinking feeling we
were headed more West than South – not cutting across the desert
but plowing further into a wasteland that modern Chinese researchers brave
only in camel caravans.
I was gripping the steering wheel so tightly that my knuckles were whiter
than my wife’s face when I rounded a sand dune and saw – a
row of trees! People!
Dusty peasants walking behind dusty mules gawked as we emerged triumphantly
from the desert in a glorious cloud of dust and barreled onto the most
beautiful dirt path I had ever seen in my life. And 30 or 40 kilometers
further we reached the southern end of the 200 km detour that we discovered,
far too late, locals take to avoid the 50 km shortcut we had barely survived.
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The Not So Great Wall
As we entered Shaanxi province, we saw rising up on the distant horizon
what resembled a massive Mesopotamian ziggurat. (Wrong turn somewhere!).
Closer inspection revealed it was a castle or tower, decked out with flags
like Disneyland or a real estate promotion in the Southern Californian
desert. The structure looked new, but we checked our maps and found it
was the recently refurbished but ancient Zhenbei tower, part of the Great
Wall that cuts across Yulin County. As we drove through the pass in the
Great Wall, we heaved a collective sigh of relief as we officially left
the barbarian desert behind us.
That was the last time we saw the Great Wall, which continued its lonely
vigil all the way to Jiayuguan pass in Qinghai, where the rubble that
remains is half buried in sand dunes. I think of the millions who died
building it, and its present state. It brings to mind Shelley’s
Ozymandias. Fully 700 years before the Chinese began the Great Wall, the
Egyptians erected the funerary temple of Ramses II (a.k.a. Ozymandias,
1279-1213 B.C) on the west bank of the Nile River at Thebes in Upper Egypt.
The temple boasted a 57 feet tall seated statue of Ramses II – a
work designed to preserve his greatness for eternity. In 1819 Shelley
wrote of the shattered work,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Most of the Great Wall is now but a colossal
wreck, boundless and bare, and the lone and level sands stretch far away.
Except, of course, for the Disneyesque tourist attractions north of Beijing
and in Yulin County, Shaanxi.
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. So why on earth was I dragging my wife
and 6 and 8 year old sons on a 40,000 kilometer nightmare drive around
China? Curiosity? To know China? Vanity? Sir Edmund Percival Hillary claimed
that he climbed Everest, “Because it was there.”
Perhaps we drove around China because it was there. More likely, it was
a Descartian attempt to prove I am here, though perhaps it only proves
I am not altogether there. But who is?
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Shaanxi Hobbits “In
a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole,
filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare,
sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole,
and that means comfort.” (The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien).
We most gladly left the Gobi desert behind
us, for a while anyway, and descended into a deep, narrow, twisting valley.
The steep, loess cliffs towering on either side were riddled with manmade
caves from top to bottom, because Shaanxi locals are hardcore Chinese
Shanxi cave dwellings are actually quite practical. They are warm in winter,
cool in summer, and safe. While the poorest make do with simple holes
and pounded clay kangs (heated platform beds) and tables, the better off
burrows boast beautiful carved wooden doors and intricate lattice windows.
Even the well-to-dos’ homes have rounded ceilings and turfed roofs
to preserve the ambience of a holeish habitat.
I can imagine a Shanxi cave dweller, in his sheepskin coat and “white
sheep’s belly towel” wrapped about his head, praising a neighbor,
“Your home is so cozy.”
“Oh, it’s just a hole in the wall.”
Rich or poor, most cave dwellers boast one multi-purpose piece of furniture
– the kang, a large block of mud bricks or stone slabs with a passage
underneath so that left-over heat from the cooking fire can warm the kang
before going out the chimney. The energy efficient kang saves firewood,
keeps the air fresh, and serves as a warm bed, couch, sewing center, desk
for small scholars to do homework, and a place to entertain visitors.
Most cave dwellers are poor, but happy and hospitable, offering even the
most casual strangers a place on the family kang, and bowls of fresh apples,
and peanuts, and wine-saturated dates – a local specialty, which
are not only tasty but also supposedly improve spleen and kidney functions.
The dates are dried and sacked to use through the winter or to give to
friends and relatives, or for weddings and elderly people’s birthdays.
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Cave dwellings’ doors and windows reach right to the ceiling, insuring
maximum illumination. Walls are plastered with the bright 20 cent posters
sold in bookstores throughout China – pictures of Mao, Zhou Enlai,
the Monkey King, Mickey Mouse. They also paste up ‘lucky’
slogans such as “Wealth” and “Long Life.” Windows
and doors are decorated with intricate paper cuts snipped away by the
women on long winter evenings. Even small girls spend hours with scissors
and paper, practicing the ancient art, for in this area of the country
two of the most important qualities of a bride should be skill in embroidery
and paper cutting. I’ve often though Susan should take it up, for
she too is a real cut up.
Caves aren’t bad homes. They are inexpensive, durable, comfortable,
climactically controlled, and make ecological as well as aesthetic sense.
Since they are built inside cliffs, they don’t occupy farmland,
or hurt the environment. Farmers also use caves for granaries, sometimes
having a separate cave for wheat, sorghum, corn and millet.
Above all, caves are durable. General Xue Rengui’s cave is still
livable after 1,300 years, suggesting that sometimes the old ways are
indeed the best ways.
I used to think it silly for Englishmen to roof their cottages with straw,
but a good thatched roof can last decades, and the seaweed roofed homes
in Shandong province can hold up an entire century. But our ‘modern’
American roofs need replacing every ten or fifteen years (though America’s
economy is built on planned obsolescence, not stewardship of our planet).
After an excruciatingly long drive, we pulled into Yan’an at midnight.
It was here that the Great Helmsman himself holed up in a cave after the
6,000 mile Long March in 1934. It was inspiring, yes, but we opted to
hole up in the guesthouse, where we slept the sleep of those who had almost
been dead. And next morning, well rested, we drove on to Xi’an,
the ancient gateway to the not so silky Silk Road.
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The Not so Silky Road
In Xi’an, we recuperated for a full week in the Jiaotong University
guesthouse, crawling forth only a few times to walk atop the city’s
ancient, massive walls, which impressed me more than the obligatory tourist
site housing the unearthed Terra Cotta warriors. After all, I had hundreds
of green plastic soldiers as a child. The Emperor simply had more money
for bigger toys.
After our Xi’an R&R, we set off down the ancient Silk Road towards
the arid heights of Gansu and Qinghai. The road was not as silky as I
had expected. As we made our way along rough dirt roads that clung to
mountain peaks tighter than a hangman’s noose, it was hard to imagine
that this trade route had been in use for 2,000 years.
During the first century A.D., 2,000 camels a day carried silk to the
Chinese border. The Emperor protected the culture from contamination by
forbidding barbarians to enter, and by forbidding Chinese to leave. It
was much like today’s policies.
The resourceful Chinese merchants left their silk goods, with the expected
price marked clearly, on the roadside just outside the furthest walled
city. After they beat a hasty retreat, the foreign traders rode up, took
the silk, and left the required amount of coral, rubies, wood, copper,
tin and barrels of honey. Only after the barbarians had departed did the
wary Chinese retrieve the Westerners’ wares.
China, determined to protect her intellectual property rights, absolutely
forbade the export of raw silk, and its origin was a mystery until 550
A.D., when two Persian Nestorian monks smuggled out silkworm eggs concealed
in bamboo. They presented the eggs to the Emperor Justinian at Byzantium,
and the cat was out of the bag. And Justinian never paid China a penny
The silk road’s history is endlessly fascinating, but my dwellings
on the past vanished as the precarious present reared its ugly head at
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Toy Ota Gives up the Ghost
Forewarned of Ningxia’s poverty by comrades, police and National
Geographic articles, we weren’t surprised at the poor roads, or
at the mendicants lining the road selling squirrels on strings to passing
truckers. But we also saw construction at virtually every turn. The children’s
laughter and the ready smiles of their parents suggested they were far
from helpless or hopeless. Their courage in poverty strengthened my respect
for them and reinforced my own sense of responsibility to help them.
But as I cerebrated upon these lofty hopes my own hopes abandoned me.
In this remotest, poorest area of China, on a deserted mountain road,
in the dead of a moonless night, Toy Ota gave up the ghost.
I coasted backwards to the bottom of the mountain, where to my surprise
I discovered, only 5 meters from where the van had rolled to a stop, a
sign: “Vehicle repair!”
How true the Greek proverb, “When God throws, the dice are loaded.”
An old grandpa smiled at us, donned his worn coat, crawled under the van
and announced that our entire fuel system was clogged up from filthy fuel.
Though lacking tools and parts, he managed to clear the lines enough for
us to sputter another 6 hours up the mountains to Lanzhou, Gansu Province’s
capital, and the transportation hub of the Northwest.
We checked our ailing van in to the Lanzhou Toyota repair center, and
checked ourselves in to the Lanzhou Hotel, where we enjoyed a panoramic
view from the alcove of our 21st floor room. Even the 10 p.m. blackout
did not dampen our spirits. The boys perched on the ledge counting cabooses
in the train station far below, and mom and dad watched their boys. Who
needs television when you have children?
Next morning, the power was still out, and so were the elevators, and
the front desk was strategically ignoring calls. So I traipsed briskly
down 21 flights of stairs, filled my red plastic waste bucket from the
fountain, and walked not so lightly, bucket of water on my shoulder, back
up the 21 flights.
Then I descended, a tad more slowly, the 21 flights of stairs. I retrieved
Toy Ota from the Toy Ota repair shop, where I was charged double what
they’d quoted. I returned to the hotel and crawled painfully back
up the 21 flights of stairs to collect Sue, the boys, and our three heavy
suitcases and giant water container. After staggering down the 21 flights
of stairs, I loaded the van and left Lanzhou’s 3-Star hotel, resolving
that next time I’d book the basement.
The fiascoes in the Mongolian desert and Ningxia mountains had taken a
toll on my health, and 21 flights of stairs, five times, finished me off.
Thank heaven for Xining.
Qinghai’s capital, is a natural sanatorium. This two mile high city,
perched on the edge of the 4-5,000 meter Qinghai plateau, is crisply cool
and clean, and the people are a fascinating, friendly mix of cultures.
The several mosques suggested Muslims were the majority, but we also saw
a large new Christian church, and we even encountered our first Tibetans
in their striking costumes and jewelry.
The dorm-style rooms of the Xining Guest House were plain but inexpensive
and clean, and boasted hot baths; I took two the first evening.
Xining’s unpretentious, no-star guesthouse, and its warm, cooperative
staff, rate 5 stars in my book any day.
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The World’s Highest Highway
Xining is two miles high, but the road west ascended higher yet, laboriously
insinuating itself into forbidden ranges. Verdant valleys flung between
the precipitous peaks were dotted with Mongolian yurts and colorful Tibetan
tents perched precariously on hillsides so steep that Susan wondered how
they slept on sloped floors.
Shiny new Suzukis and Hondas were parked beside some of the yurts, but
they’ll never match the horse. With bated breath we watched horsemen
on mounts as sure-footed as mountain goats zigzag up sheer cliffs, driving
cattle and shaggy yaks up their perpendicular pasture.
As we approached our first 4,000 meter pass, my head throbbed and my lungs
labored; one week later we would long nostalgically for 4,000 meters lowlands.
But misery loves company, and battered “Liberation” trucks
wheezed and gasped worse than I did. They inched up the steep grades,
hoods raised to force as much of the rarified air as possible onto the
overheated, sputtering engines. With the hood up the drivers drove blindly,
so their partner leaned out the side shouting directions to keep them
on the narrow road chiseled into the cliffs. Some places were not wide
enough for vehicles to pass, though some must have tried, judging from
the carnage at the bottom of the 1,000 foot cliffs.
I was anxious to put these mountains behind me, but too soon the mountains
and the grasslands gave way to salt flats and desert embracing the widest
horizon I had ever seen. I pitied the poor nomad with a fear of widths.
of the Desert Occasionally the monotony of this tedious terrain
was interrupted by herds of camels, some unattended and others driven
by herdsmen whooping like warring Arabs. One camel lagged far behind the
others, and I suspected he would soon find repose in a rectangular tin
of the “Chili Camel Meat” (Mongolian luncheon meat) like we
had bought as a souvenir in Xining.
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Back when Christ walked the Judean deserts, these “ships of the
desert” (Chinese call them this as well) were traveling the ancient
Silk Road, transporting Chinese silk, steel, pottery, porcelain, and tea,
and bringing back from Europe and the Middle East the pears, medicines
and perfumes prized by Chinese nobility.
Trucks have pretty much obsolesced camels, but a few ‘camel families’
remain scattered about the desert. In addition to providing camel wool
and milk, camels transport local medicines and furs to Mongolia, and they
return with tea and sugar and cloth. Caravans also make the three month,
3,000 kilometer trip to Xinjiang, though never in the summer, and travel
is always in late afternoon or at night, for contrary to popular belief,
camels cannot survive intense heat for very long.
For ten days before the caravan sets out, camels are denied water, and
their grazing is limited. Just prior to departure, they are given their
fill – as much as 100 kilograms of water at once, after which they
can travel two to three weeks without a refill.
Camel drivers sport fashionable, full length camel-hair coats, white on
one side and dark on the other. In the daytime, the white fur reflects
the sun and keeps them cool. At night, the fur is turned to the inside,
and keeps them warm.
Several times we stopped as herds of ten feet high camels wandered slowly,
stately, across the highway, the camel bells ringing monotonously. In
the vast stillness of the desert, the bells can be heard for well over
Camel bells have always fascinated Chinese poets and musicians. The bells
are large, like a small bucket, and clang loudly each time the camel takes
a step. Legend has it that the bells keep the camel drivers from getting
lonely, as they sing songs to their rhythmic accompaniment. Less poetic
souls argue that the bells are just to keep the camels from getting lost.
Camel drivers can be sound asleep on the lead camel, but the minute the
bell on the rear camel stops ringing (only one bell per caravan), they
know a camel is lost. But when entering bandit-infested regions, camel
drivers turn the bell upside down, and the camels know to proceed quietly
until past danger.
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When Seeing Is Not Believing We soon put camel country behind
us and continued down the broad, flat highway, which shimmered and rippled
under the deadly rays of the desert sun. Several times we saw lakes, some
with trees lining them, stretching across the horizon ahead of us or on
both sides. “Those are mirages, boys,” I said.
“They aren’t really there.”
“No way.” Susan protested. As we neared a large lake, surrounded
by trees, she said, “That one has to be real, Bill. It has trees.”
On cue, the oasis shimmered and dissolved into sand and stone, and my
shocked sweetheart said, “That is weird.”
We ached for real greenery as we traversed terrain beside which the Mojave
Desert was lush by comparison. And we found it.
Several times we crested bare peaks of stone and sand to discover shimmering
emeralds coruscating in the desolation below us. Dozens of predominately
Muslim towns sprang right out of the deadly desert. Their small streets
were shaded with trees, and the desert around them had been transformed
into great fields of grain, which stood like rank upon rank of green-clad
soldiers, defying the savage ascendancy of sand ready to leach their tenuous
lives should life-giving wells falter.
There is no ambiguity on the rarefied heights of the roof of the world.
As life duels daily with death, so light wars with darkness, and heat
with cold. Direct sunlight is blinding and blistering, but shadows are
dark and chilling. It was unnerving. We either sizzled in the sun or we
shivered as the most wispy of clouds passing overhead cast amorphous ebony
shades that crept like giant amoebas across the sun bleached rocks and
dunes, chilling us and, in passing, relegating us once again to the frying
pan. But a more chilling specter was the red light flashing on the gasoline
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What A Gas! Sophisticated,
computerized gas stations are a dime a dozen in most of China. My favorite
is a Fuzhou station designed to look like the U.S. Space Shuttle, and
covered with hundreds of the glossy white ceramic bathroom tiles that
grace the exterior walls of everything from individual homes to multi-story
office buildings. NASA spent millions and couldn’t keep their shuttle’s
ceramic tiles from falling off. They should have used 15-cent Chinese
But gas is at a premium in West China. Toy Ota was running on fumes by
the time we discovered a ramshackle, corrugated tin hut that served as
the only filling station for hundreds of kilometers. I hand pumped petrol
from a rusty barrel into a rustier bucket, and sloshed it into our tank,
soaking the ground and myself in the process – while half a dozen
curious Muslims anxious to meet Mohammed face to face huddled around me
with lit cigarettes in hand. I wanted to shed a little light on safety,
but I feared they’d light me instead.
I also filled two plastic containers with extra petrol – a dangerous
expedient, but less dangerous than being stranded on Qinghai’s permafrost
plateau. After we’d ascended in altitude a few hundred meters more,
the containers began swelling dangerously and the van filled with fumes.
Thereafter, I loosened the caps periodically, relieving the containers
but asphyxiating the passengers and driver.
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Hero Drivers The Qinghai
desert was an arid and lifeless plain, vast salt flats below and barren,
rocky peaks around us. The deep blue vault not far overhead silhouetted
the shreds of clouds that escaped from Tibet in the south, where low hanging
cumulus seemed eldritch extensions of the snow-capped ranges below. I
saw why ‘cloud’ came from the Old English ‘clud’,
which meant ‘rock’ or ‘hill.’ At times the clouds
resembled mountains, and at others the mountains masqueraded as clouds,
and the thought of driving Toy Ota into that uncanny realm through 3 mile
high mountain passes was alternately tonic and terrifying, especially
as the gas gauge once again whispered, “Feed me, Seymour.”
Perhaps I was not the only driver intoxicated with the hypnotic beauty
of these Himalayan heights. Traffic was virtually nonexistent, yet we
still passed at least a half dozen overturned, crushed trucks, some with
bodies laid out neatly beside the crushed hulks - a rite performed, no
doubt, by wandering Tibetan herdsman who had stumbled upon the deceased
In every corner of the country, signs warn, “Don’t Drive Like
a “Hero!” (i.e., “Don’t play chicken”),
but even with trucks, cars and buses flung across the landscape like giant
matchbox cars, drivers act as though immortal. They barrel along 90 to
nothing down the middle of the road, even around blind, hairpin mountain
curves. But I was soon forced to do the same.
To give way too soon to oncoming traffic is seen not as courtesy but weakness.
The first few times I tried it I was nearly run off the road by buses
or logging trucks that came so close that one smashed my sideview mirror.
In Sichuan, a military truck driver, who evidently had missed out on the
“Army Loves the People” seminars in the spring of ‘89,
ran me right into a rice paddy.
I read the writing on the oncoming bumpers and realized that this was
not about playing hero cars, this was about survival. Fine enough. I had
offensive driving in the military, where we learned J-turns and all the
other maneuvers for protective operations and counter-terrorist situations,
and this was terrorism. I too took to the middle of the road, giving way
only enough to avoid getting slapped in the face by truckers’ reinforced,
telescoping side view mirrors, which are their equivalent of the disabling
razor edge projections on Ben Hur’s chariot. I was never run off
the road again.
One Night Stands It was midnight when we pulled in to
Golmud, the commercial and transport link between Tibet and the rest of
China. We hoped to spend two nights before crossing the lofty Kunlun and
Tanggula ranges into Tibet, but the hotel clerk said, “One night
At dawn, we purchased two bags of oxygen from a medical supply and headed
for the Golmud check post--with no little trepidation, having been forewarned
we might be turned back from the heavily guarded road.
Three youthful guards sauntered out of their shack and stopped dead in
their tracks, staring in disbelief. Never had a family of foreigners shown
up unescorted on the roof of the world’s doorstep in a Fujian van.
For weeks I had dreaded the Golmud check post, for foreigners are forbidden
to take even public ground transportation into Tibet, much less to drive
by themselves. But my worries were groundless. The guards examined my
driver’s license (like they would of a Chinese driver, but they
never asked for any further I.D.), and they asked a dozen questions, but
more out of friendly curiosity than suspicion. At long last they smiled,
wished us a safe journey, and lifted the red and white striped road barrier,
opening before us the last ascent to the roof of the world.
Lifeline The stretch from Golmud to Lhasa
was torturous but I won’t complain. It was a miracle they could
build it, much less maintain it. At 4,000 to 5,000 meters, this 1,166
km road is the world’s highest highway, at its lowest points still
not descending to America’s peak elevation. Rugged, otherworldly
terrain, scant oxygen, fierce winds, mammoth land slides, temperatures
that plummet to –30 degrees Celsius – it was a frigid realm
of ice and snow, inhabited by none but road workers.
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Until 1951, a journey from Lhasa to Sichuan took one year by yak. In fact,
Dr. David Woodward, who married Susan and I, reached the mountain stronghold
decades ago by horseback. He has tales to tell.
Tibet’s geographical isolation ended only in the 50’s, when
countless Chinese soldiers slaved, and perished, over the road that most
deserves to be called a highway, for there has never been a higher way.
Ever since their sacrifice, biting arctic-like winds and temperatures
have wreaked havoc on the permafrost foundation, threatening to send Tibet
back into its age-old isolation if the road crews miss a beat.
Every few kilometers, road workers toiled in rain and hail to preserve
this tenuous lifeline to the outside world, and virtually every worker
we passed smiled and waved at us, shouting in Mandarin and Tibetan. The
boys quickly picked up on the Tibetan greeting, “Tashee Deelay!”
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Deadly Detours With good infrastructure the key to economic
development, these good-natured, courageous road workers are the true
heroes of China’s modernization. But I was not enamored of their
devious detours, which lumbering Tibetan trucks had churned into pits
and quagmires worse than our Mongolian sand trap. Between the bouncing
and swerving, the high altitude sickness and carsickness, and the fumes
from the swelling plastic gas containers, even I, the driver, was sick.
After about 10 hours of stopping every few minutes for someone to bring
up their lunch, I proposed we throw up the towel as well and wait for
Tibet to come out on video. Susan clutched her olive drab, army surplus
canvas oxygen bag to her breast, and said, “We’ve come too
far now. Tibet or bust.”
I feared bust was more likely, but I laughed in spite of myself as her
words reminded me of a recent China Daily headlines, “Chinese bra
firm goes bust!” Kudos to that venerable publication’s resident
foreign experts, who probably agree with P.J. O’Rourke’s notion
that, “Seriousness is stupidity sent to college.”
Near dusk, we sidled up alongside a convoy of Tibetan trucks decked out
in brightly painted Tibetan swastikas and symbols. They were encircled
in a field beside the road, and the laughing truckers sat on rocks around
a blazing campfire. They look up only briefly, then turned their attention
back to their fire, as if a family of Californians in a Toy Ota were everyday
fare for them.
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Tibetan Convoy As Sue prepared for the three of them
to bed down in back, I leaned against the driver’s door and watched
the truckers lug out a four feet long wooden churn, which they primed
with butter, salt and tea, and took turns pumping with alacrity to produce
their favorite beverage. At dusk, they packed up their churn and remnants
of yak dung from their fire, and prepared not to bed down but to leave
– with us in tow.
I had already driven 15 hours that day, and was ready to hunch down on
the driver’s seat and pray for dreams of warm beds and hot food.
But a soft tap on the windshield yanked me back into cold, cramped reality.
A Tibetan trucker, so dark that all I could see was his eyes and teeth,
smiled and said in halting Mandarin, “We leave now. Follow us. Not
“I’m tired!” I protested. “You go.”
“No,” he insisted. “Good road, downhill, sleep better
lower, military base, soldiers protect from bandits.” He paused,
then added, “Just 20 minutes.”
He lied--but with with good reason, I was soon to learn.
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Twenty minutes came and went as I kept my aching eyes glued to the long
row of red taillights that snaked up and down switchbacks like a drunken
dragon. Hours later, we turned off the road and drove through a gap in
a stone wall into an army base. I thanked my guide, and once again hunkered
down in the front seat to dream of fried rice and cheeseburgers.
We woke at the crack of dawn but our Tibetan Samaritans had already deserted
the courtyard, so with empty fuel tank and empty spare containers, we
embarked on a futile search for petrol. (And yes – this is where
Chapter One began!).
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PLA Saves the Day Toy Ota was running on fumes when we
finally stopped at a military base. In the rest of China the military
will sell gasoline to soldiers and civilians alike if they have the cash,
but here I was told, “I’m sorry but we don’t sell to
“Are there any gas stations anywhere around?” I asked.
“Which way are you going?” he asked.
“We’re headed for Tibet.”
His eyes widened. “You’re driving?” He thought a moment,
then said, “There aren’t any gas stations anywhere, in either
direction.” (So why, I wondered, did he ask which way I was going?”).
Even our plastic containers were empty, and we did not have enough gas
either to press forward or to retreat. It hit me that I was finally out
of my depth, and had probably been out of my depth since I jumped in to
this crazy trip in the first place. In fact, I had probably been out of
my depth since I moved to China. “Lord, what on earth do I do now?”
I said silently. Someone must have heard my silent plea, for minutes later
an officer marched smartly out of the headquarters building in the rear
and said, “You may fill your tank.”
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I thanked him and his ancestors, and as I filled the tank, he added, “Top
it off. It’s a long way to a gas station in Tibet.” I topped
it off, then asked how much we owed. The officer said, “They told
you we are forbidden to sell petrol to civilians. So we are giving it
to you.” He wheeled about and marched off, then looked back over
his shoulder and said, “Drive safely.”
Those two words must have been the local mantra.
We waved goodbye and continued our ascent into the mountains. As we crested
one range, we descended right smack into a July hailstorm. Boiling, black
vapors angrily enshrouded the looming mountains, and thunderclaps reverberated
across the tenebrous valleys. The wind keened a shrill banshee wail and
the tempest taunted us like a cat banters with a mouse, lashing out from
left and then right, each gust threatening to pry loose Toy Ota’s
poor purchase upon the slippery white blanket of hail, and hurl us down
Road crews, oblivious of the meteorological mayhem, toiled on, pausing
only to don cloth army caps, and to wave and shout “Tashee Deelay!”
We waved back, and pressed higher, but the doubt nagged at me, “What
if we are turned back at the pass into Tibet?”
Tibet at Last!
Mount Nebo, Tibet The road spiraled
ever higher and we slipped and slid on the hail and ice that blanketed
the precipitous switchbacks, as if the very elements conspired to prevent
our ascent. Angry black clouds shot through with jagged bolts of lightning
seethed and swirled about the forbidden snowcapped peaks as we passed
the 16,000 foot elevation point. By 17,000 feet, Sue was sucking oxygen
again, but I could see the pass in the distance – higher still.
And again that nagging doubt – what if we’re turned back by
Toy Ota strained up the final stretch and my heart skipped a beat when
I saw the tall, forbidding form posted on the side of the road. But he
was not a Chinese soldier. He was a grim Tibetan statue of gray stone,
a lone sentinel draped in tattered Tibetan prayer flags, sent to ward
against the impetuosity of trespassing mortals. And he said nothing.
Tibet at last.
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Ever since my youth, when I read James Hilton’s novel Shangri-La,
I had dreamed of a trek on a Tibetan pony into mystical Tibet. Now, with
a wife and two small sons in tow, I was happy to have forgone the pony.
Toy Ota was bad enough. But now I felt like Moses on Mount Nebo as I took
in the great plains of Tibet stretching endlessly below me, and I ignored
the imp on my left shoulder’s sarcastic, “Looks no different
from the Qinghai plain behind you, Bro.”
I shot photos and videos, oblivious to the howling wind and the icy August
cold, until my three passengers put the icing on my metaphysical cake
by demanding, “Can we go now?”
That night we were top billing in a humble hotel in Nagqu, but there are
no people more amicable than Tibetans. A shutterbug’s dream, they
hovered over us, grins shining from sun-blackened faces. Their smiles
come easily, and unlike the cameraphobes elsewhere, they pose not just
willingly but eagerly, buried beneath their belts, sashes, and swaths
of colorful blankets embroidered with Tibetan swastikas and religious
symbols. Silver and turquoise jewelry (similar to that worn by the American
tribes that Tibetans closely resemble) added the finishing touches to
the women’s costumes, and richly ornamented daggers dangled from
the men’s belts. A few women sported fashionable olive drab army
tennis shoes, and long, matted, coal black braids jutted from beneath
broad-brimmed cowboy hats. I suppose they braided their hair in lieu of
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Hot water is a rare commodity, even in hotels, so Tibetans don’t
bathe as often as they’d like. Neither did we, for even though Tibet’s
annual autumn bathing festival was approaching, we weren’t keen
on waiting around a month so we could skinny dip in a river, however healthy
they claim it to be.
It is said that during the bathing festival, when thousands throng the
rivers, the water is sweet, cool, and Annual Bath? clear, and not only
is it safe to drink but it heals certain diseases, and prevents others.
But it is curious to me that its healing powers are strongest when everyone
is bathing in it.
The men braid their long, matted hair into dreadlocks, entwine them with
black or red yarn, and bind the locks about their heads like turbans.
Pretty intimidating, and when they swaggered towards me, hands on dagger
hilts, I didn’t know whether to smile, run, or suggest they take
their annual bath a month early.
Many Tibetans sported the round, brass, Gandhi spectacles that tourist
shops elsewhere in China pawn off as antiques. One colorfully dressed
gentleman, perched erect, side-saddle, with book in hand, on an equally
picturesque pony, peered at me quizzically through his Gandhi specs and
grinned from ear to ear. Days later, on our return, we saw him again,
leading a band of horses and laughing children out of a gully. He waived
at us and laughed as if we were old friends.
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Tibetan Monkey Business
Many have debated the origin of Shangri La’s fascinating inhabitants.
Tibetans claim that they did not come from elsewhere, but that Tibet is
one of the cradles of human civilization, which began after the waters
receded. The presence of fossilized seashells at elevations of 3 or 4
miles supports the claim of Tibet’s ancient Annals of History: “In
the beginning, Tibet was covered with water.”
China’s first Ph.D. in anthropology, Gaile, agrees with these claims,
but he may be biased. He is a Tibetan from Ganzi, in the Tibetan Autonomous
Prefecture, Sichuan. He wrote a 400,000 word doctorate thesis, “The
Origins and Evolution of Tibetan Culture and Its Relationship with Neighboring
Nationalities.” He too argued that the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau was
a birthplace of ancient man, and that Tibetans did not immigrate from
elsewhere. But Gaile stopped short of confirming that Chenrezi was the
monkey ancestor in the Tibetan family tree.
Tibetans claim to be the offspring of a magical, mystical union between
Chenrezi, the monkey saint, and Drolma, the Great Goddess (a fierce mountain
spirit). For ages, the lonely goddess wailed, and cried out from her cave,
“I’m lonely, Chenrezi. Let us live together and have a family.”
Chenrezi was in no mood to monkey around, but after aeons of harping he
succumbed. The monkey and his madam conceived six children, who were fruitful
and multiplied and founded the six original tribes of Tibet. Chenrezi
then planted barley in the beautiful Yarland Valley (known as the Cradle
of Tibetan Civilization), and thenceforth Tibetans have thrived on sampa
(roasted barley) and chang (barley beer).
Darwin, no doubt, would have appreciated the ease with which Tibetans
trace their family tree back to monkeys – or for that matter, how
easily the Chinese can trace foreigners’ ancestry. Legend has it
that the Chinese, the one pure race, were created from clay by the great
goddess, and that foreigners are all descended from an ancient, unholy
union between a Chinese and a monkey. A Xiamen University professor informed
me, “That’s why you foreigners have hair on your arms and
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The Sounds of Tibetan Silence Chicken Little would never
cotton to the Roof of the World, where clouds hang so low one is tempted
to duck. The fleecy balls shred in passing the jagged ridges, on which
are silhouetted rows of burial stupas, like a great dragon’s dentures,
gleaming dully in the brief rays of a setting sun that plummets like an
arrow in its haste to find more congenial climes.
Herds of wooly yaks are tossed across the vast meadows that march to the
very foot of eternally snow-shrouded mountains. These hardy Tibetan oxen
can survive at 4,500 meter altitudes (can’t handle heat, though),
can carry heavy loads at -30 degrees Centigrade, and can always find their
way home. Tibetan herdsmen keep them in line with the Tibetan wuduo, a
sling that David would have given Goliath’s eyeteeth to own. Plaited
from yak’s hair, the wuduo can fire rocks for 100 meters with great
We passed a few gaily attired Tibetan maidens shouldering containers of
what was probably milk or butter. Tibetan girls churn their butter well
into the night, when the rows of white and blue Tibetan tents, glowing
from the flickering butter candles within, resemble a great string of
Tibetan Christmas lights flung across the darksome hills.
For Shanxi’s Chinese hobbits, embroidery and paper cutting are the
paramount skills for potential brides. In Tibet, skilled butter making
is the drawing card when it comes time to land a husband -- or two or
three. Tibetan girls, who are in short supply, sometimes have several
husbands, and China’s one child policy might make polyandry the
norm elsewhere, for with Chinese, the lack of at least one male child
is damning, in both this life and the next.
Sons labor in the fields to create wealth, whereas daughters dissipate
the family fortune through dowries. Furthermore, for Buddhist Chinese,
only a male descendant can burn the offerings required to shorten their
stay in hell. In this son-obsessed nation, girls have little use –
until it comes time to find a wife.
I suggest a simple solution: require husbands, not brides, to have dowries,
thus rewarding those who raise daughters. (But I hope our sons Shannon
and Matthew don’t hold me to that)
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Tibet must have the cleanest air in the world. It was laborious to
breathe, but also a joy. But hailing from Los Angeles, I at first experienced
some anxiety at filling my lungs with what I could neither see nor smell
nor cut with a dull Chinese cleaver.
Tibet is a labor of love for the lungs and a feast for the eyes. It is
also music to the ears, for Tibet’s most precious asset is silence,
an all too rare commodity on the more plebeian plains of our planet. Oliver
Wendell Holmes, Sr., wrote, “And Silence, like a poultice, comes
To heal the blows of sound.”
My sentiments exactly. Tibetan silence was healing. I luxuriated in that
transcendent tranquility, even when her preternatural calm was punctuated
by uniquely Tibetan sounds –the hum of perpetually spinning Tibetan
prayer wheels, the sonorous moaning of temple horns, the hypnotic cadence
of drums, and the endless primordial chanting emanating from ancient temples
lit by the flickering orange glow of countless butter lamps.
Tibet is a synonym for silence.
Tibetan Flower Children Aside from a few 16,000 foot
passes, the road from Tanggula Pass to Lhasa is pretty much one very long
coast downhill. There were few signs of habitation on the higher plains,
though in the lower valleys we saw ochre earthen buildings whose wooden
balconies were lined with cans, jars and boxes of flowers. Tibetans cherish
their frail flowers, which like the people who plant them in every nook
and cranny struggle ceaselessly yet courageously for survival in their
Just north of Lhasa we passed the Yangpachen geothermal field, a surreal
site of hot springs, spurting fountains, salt springs, hot lakes, and
steaming swamps, which the Chinese are eagerly tapping to produce geothermal
In 1951, Lhasa had no reliable electricity. Today it boasts hydroelectric
power and several geothermal stations. Solar water heaters are common
(even Xiamen University is using China’s amazing solar heating technology),
and Tibet has at least 100 wind generators. Now that electricity is the
current thing, Tibetans are enjoying radio, television, and even washing
machines (which some also use to churn butter).
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No Passuh Po! We emerged
from a winding valley to see, at last, the Potala Palace in the distance,
glowing golden in the afternoon sun, but as we approached the city a policeman
flagged us down and said, “Passuh po!”
“Passuh po? What’s that?”
“Passuh po!” he repeated, hand outstretched.
He wants a bribe? And then I understood. He was speaking English, not
“Passport?” I said.
“Shi! Passuh po!”
But I had the passports, and our money, screwed in the side panel of the
van, as a precaution against theft. In fact, I’d not shown our passports
once the entire trip. And I was too exhausted to dig them out now, so
I smiled and said, “I’m Chinese.” (It was only a slight
stretch of the truth; I’m Permanent Resident, after all).
His eyes narrowed, and he said, “You don’t look Chinese to
“I’m speaking Chinese, aren’t I?”
He paused but a second before retorting, “If I spoke fluent English
would that make me an American?”
It was such a perfect comeback that I burst out laughing, and so did he.
And before I could say another word he smiled and said, “Never mind.
With a light heart I descended into the mystic city of Lhasa – only
to find there was no room in the inn.
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No Room In the Inn I think every work unit in China holds
meetings in Lhasa during the summer, Tibet’s only real tourist season.
Worse yet, Tibet’s most important religious festival was five days
after our arrival, so while upper class quarters were packed with cadres
and tourists on package deals, low-life lodgings swarmed with a steady
stream of penurious pilgrims like us. Hour after hour, we scouted hotels,
hostels and hole-in-the walls only to be told, “Booked up. Come
back in September.”
We at last begged lodging in a sprawling, unimaginative Chinese run hotel,
though we were made to understand that we might be kicked out on our ear
if the room was needed. We unpacked Toy Ota, washed up in freezing water,
and after a day of rest began pounding the pavements of Lhasa, though
gingerly, for the altitude was still pounding us.
Potala Palace Lhasa is the Mecca of Lamaist
Buddhism. It was in this 1300 year old city that the Tibetan language
was put into writing so the Buddhist scriptures could be translated, and
as the language developed, other Tibetan works were put to paper.
Streets bustle with vendors and beggars, and shoppers comb the well-stocked
markets and bazaar outside the gold roofed Jokhang Temple, which by sunrise
is thronged by so many worshippers that over the centuries, prostrators
have worn grooves into the pavement stones before the Jokhang’s
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From sunup to sundown, Tibetans, Chinese and foreigners haggle over poorly
tanned sheep skins (we bought two, but had to throw the smelly things
out), and intricately designed silver bracelets, silver and copper head
and breast ornaments, knife-sheaths, snuff bottles, earrings. Most of
these genuine Tibetan artifacts are actually produced across the border
in Nepal, but the 4 foot oak and brass buttered tea churns were the real
thing, and I bought one, and it has graced a dusty corner of our dining
room ever since.
We rested two days before we took on the Potala Palace. Still struggling
with the altitude, we paid a fat fee for a bus ride to the upper entrance,
but halfway up the steep incline, the bus gave up the ghost. I had less
than chivalrous thoughts as we males pushed the bus up the steep slope
while women and children rode in comfort, but the Tibetan men laughed
and took it in stride. I could barely breathe, much less laugh.
The grandiose Potala Palace soars 117 meters high and sprawls 360 meters
on the side of Marpori, the Hill that Touches Heaven, in Lhasa’s
dead center. It was first built in the 7th century by Songtsan Gampo as
a defense against enemy invasions, though the Tibetans were probably more
of a threat than their neighbors. The pugnacious Tibetan armies even went
so far as to ransack China’s capital, Chang’an.
The Potala must have been an affront to both God and man. It was destroyed
several times by lightening and attacks. The present palace was rebuilt
by the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century, and continually enlarged by
his successors, until today it is 13 stories high and boasts 1,000 rooms,
all protected by outer walls that are 4 meters thick – and not a
single nail in the whole place.
Pilgrims and monks trod the cool, dark halls, always clockwise, chanting
the primal mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. It takes no adept to be transported
into other states of consciousness by the hypnotic thrumming of singing
brass bowls and the fragrant incense from the tiny herb, genden khempo.
The orange glow of butter lamps casts grotesque shadows on the walls,
worshippers, idols -- and the eight funerary stupas.
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Stupafied Only high-ranking Tibetans merit Stupa
burial. Stupas are made of clay, brass, silver and gold, gold being reserved
for the Dalai Lama. The palace’s eight stupas were built for the
5th to the 13th Dalai Lamas (excluding the 6th). While the 5th was the
largest, the 13th was the most luxurious, and most costly.
The 5th Stupa is almost 15 meters high, covers 680 square meters of floor
space, and is made of 110,000 ounces of gold. Flickering butter lamps
bathe the stupas in an eerie orange light that dances in the smoke wafting
from a forest of incense sticks.
The 13th Dalai Lama’s stupa, built in 1934, is smaller, but the
gold cost ten times as much. The golden stupa is studded with jadeite,
agate, diamonds, and corals, and in front is a Mandala made of over 200,000
And who says you can’t take it with you?
The vast wealth expended on the Dalai Lamas’ stupas suggests how
much Tibetans have sacrificed for the religion that dominates their lives
and spirits. For most Chinese, the worship of ancestors and gods is a
spiritual lottery: it might not work but it doesn’t hurt to try.
For Tibetans, religion is life itself -- as well it should be, for they
are already a few miles closer to heaven than the rest of us.
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Light and Darkness The
beauty of Tibet’s jagged, snowy peaks, like magnificent white quartz
crystals silhouetted against cobalt skies, contrasts so sharply with the
dark spirituality that is part of everyday life. Westerners tend to idealize
Tibet, but historically the Tibetans have lived amidst unearthly beauty
with an equally unearthly sense of hopelessness and desperation. We saw
many of the ragged pilgrims who crawl on hands and knees sometimes thousands
of miles through hostile terrain to Lhasa. They stand erect, feet together,
and fall forward with outstretched arms. After marking the ground with
their fingertips, they crawl to their feet, step forward to the mark,
fall face down again, hands outstretched, and again mark the ground with
their fingertips. And crawl to their feet, step to the new mark, over
and over, and over...
However we may admire their tenacity, their spiritual sojourns exact a
heavy toll. Entire families, life savings sacrificed for their pilgrimage,
camp out on Lhasa sidewalks selling trinkets or begging for return bus
fare, lest they die right on the streets and be given the poor man’s
burial – a heave and a ho into a convenient river (hopefully not
during the bathing festival). Only the well off can afford the gruesome
but practical sky burial.
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Sky Burial Burial is practically impossible in the frozen
Tibetan permafrost, so on sacred hilltops the deceased’s flesh is
hacked off the bones with knives, and vultures perched on greasy rocks
feast amidst the carnage and pools of blood. A gruesome conclusion, perhaps,
but it works. And it may be no macabre than depleting the living’s
bank accounts to drain the blood from departed loved ones, replace it
with formaldehyde, and pack them in costly satin lined mahogany crates,
all to afford worms a finer feast.
An efficient (and profitable) funeral industry allows us Americans to
practically ignore death until we ourselves wake up dead, but the denizens
of this inhuman Himalayan realm face daily the knowledge that life is
tough and then you die.
Perhaps the extreme environment has prompted the Tibetans’ extremism
in everything, from religion to music. Especially their music. They love
their ancient ballads, and the “King Gesar” Tibetan Folk epic
is the longest in the world. With one million verses, it is 4 times as
long as the Indian epic “Mahabharata,” and Tibetan performers
learn the entire piece by heart.
If it ever gets in the hands of American editors, it’s finished.
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The Native Tongue While
we were walking back to the hotel, Shannon cried out, “Daddy, that
man made faces at me!”
Days later, a policeman walking with his young daughter smiled and stuck
out his tongue. Shannon cried, “He’s making faces too!”
Distress turned to delight when I explained to the 8 year old that this
was an acceptable Tibetan greeting.
The boys had already mastered “Tashee Deelay,” and they were
both eager to embrace this new salutation. I was hard put to explain that,
while Tibetans could get away with it, it was poor form for little towheaded
Americans to waggle their tongues at every Tibetan, Chinese and foreigner
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Extra! Chinese Herbalists Hit
Tibet! Chinese, who use all things animal, vegetable and mineral
in concocting their esoteric all-purpose nostrums, are having a field
day with the rare herbs and minerals of Tibet. Caterpillar fungus and
rhubarb are prized, but one Chinese text claims the dearest source of
miracle cures is the deer: “Every part of a deer is precious, especially
the pilose antler (of a young stag) the treasure of treasures.”
In the Lhasa hotel lobby, we encountered a gauntlet of young beauties
in ankle length (but slashed up the sides to the hip) traditional Chinese
qipaos, red sashes across their breasts, like beauty queens or ambassadors.
And they were ambassadors, of a sort. They represented a Chinese medicine
firm, and they handed us copies of a glossy, English brochure for an “authorized
medicine” (actually a take off on a 1200 year old Tibetan medicine)
effective against body weakness, congestion, nausea, vomiting, and general
debility, diabetes, liver complaints, impotence and premature ejaculation,
sterility, senile heart failure, It also enhances vigor, supplemens Qi,
preserves you, prolongs life, resists fatigue and sedates (how both?),
delays aging, enhances mental and physical functions, enhances immunity,
promotes metabolism, protects from radiation and ultraviolet rays, improves
mind and memory, stimulates appetite... And above all, they claim it smells
and tastes good.
Ponce de Leon, eat your heart out.
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Tibetan Truck Stop After
a short but rich stay in Lhasa, we prepared to leave, but it was harder
prying petrol from the gas station than from the army. “You must
have ration tickets from your work unit,” the attendant informed
“But I don’t work in Tibet. I’m just visiting,”
I said. “I can’t buy gasoline?”
“Of course you can,” the fellow said, and he pointed to the
station’s entrance. “Those men at the gate sell black market
ration tickets. They’ll give you a good deal.”
I suspect they gave him a good deal too.
With a semi-full tank (they shorted me a few gallons, claiming they had
to compensate for air temperature), we retraced our route to Qinghai.
Some of the worst detours had been eliminated over the past ten days,
but lest we take life for granted, they had been replaced by obstacle
courses that made us long for the old truck traps.
The sun had just plummeted behind the jagged snow-capped peaks as we descended
the serpentine road into the backwater town of Amdo, and since the next
sizable village was a good 12 hours away, we sought out lodging. On the
side of an ancient, yellow earthen wall, someone had scrawled the character
for ‘room,’ so we followed the arrow and turned in through
a small gate into an open courtyard.
A couple of Chinese were checking under the hoods of their jeep and black
limousine. One of them, a professor of art, struck up a conversation with
me, and while he was delivering an animated monologue about ancient Tibetan
art, the heavy set Tibetan landlady made her debut. Her broad smile was
friendly but shrewd as she slowly circumambulated Toy Ota, then estimated
our worth by throwing open the side door to study the interior. It was
still somewhat of a mess from the Gobi desert fiasco two weeks earlier,
and perhaps she thought we were itinerant American gypsies, for her rate
was reasonable. “One room, 30 yuan per night. How many nights?”
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Room, Board, and Yak Dung She proudly unlocked the tiny
room. The roughly hewn wooden bed seemed to grow right out of the roughly
hewn wooden floor. She threw in, gratis, use of the homemade iron stove,
and a complimentary crate of yak dung fuel to brew our tea, then explained
how to draw water from the courtyard well.
At less than $4 a night it was a bargain.
After I’d settled our things in and tethered Toy Ota for the night,
the landlady gave us a tour her own quarters. It was but two rooms, but
like most well-appointed Tibetan homes, hers boasted a statue shelf, a
bed smothered in bright wool cushions and a brightly embroidered quilt,
a copper furnace, a kerosene lamp, a radio, and a brace of bright red
Her pride and joy were two 4 feet tall black lacquered chests. Every square
inch was illuminated with intricate inlays of Tibetan floral designs of
red, blue and green.
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Honest Tibetan Colors I love Tibetan colors--honest,
pure and unpretentious, unlike our fashionable but fickle fuchsia, which
cannot decide between purple and red, or the capricious chartreuse, which
vacillates between yellow or green, or yellowish alabaster, which has
overtones of pink or gray, depending on its mood. Such manmade pigments,
wrested from the palettes of mad merchandisers, are vaguely pleasant but
lack substance. But Tibetan colors rivet spirit as well as eyes, for they
are elemental, unsullied, of ecumenical import.
The auspicious Tibetan white always connotes clouds; blue betokens the
limitless and eternal sky; green is of the life giving river; red exhorts
obedience to the god of law in heaven; and yellow is for the earth from
which we were formed (I've no idea where the monkey and his madam fit
Our Tibetan landlady’s pièces
de résistance were two nicely framed 8” x 11” photographs
– Mao ZeDong and the Da Lai Lama. Obviously she was covering all
her bases. I did not ask if she burned incense to both, but one never
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Man or god? A few years back, one of Mao’s trusted
bodyguards wrote the bestselling, “Mao Ze Dong – Man, not
God.” Now they’ll have to publish the sequel: “Mao Ze
Dong – God, After All.” Worshippers across China are erecting
temples to Mao, and Zhou enLai, and Zhude and Deng Xiao Ping, and Buddhist
monks (and a couple of county officials) have confided to me that there’s
more money in Mao worship than in traditional Buddhism. I guess people
are now putting their money where their Mao is.
After a good night’s sleep in our rustic quarters, we set out at
dusk and by midday had reached the lonely stone sentinel at 17,300 feet.
I climbed down out of the van one last time onto Tibetan soil. I wished
I had time to drink more deeply of the vast, rich emptiness.
Years later, I can still conjure up in my mind’s ear the sounds
of Tibetan silence, a stillness so consummate that at night I could hear
the sizzle of the stars overhead.
As I left the lonely gray guardian behind, I used the greeting of another
beautiful land, Hawaii. I said, “Aloha,” which means “goodbye”,
and “love”, and a good many other things, but it also means
Aloha, Tibet. I hope to return.
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It’s a lot easier leaving than entering Tibet because from the roof
of the world every direction is downhill--and Toy Ota
well knew it. I was as happy as the van, for after 3 months of driving,
I was so attuned to every nuance and vibration that my hands, gripping
the wheel, felt every tremor. When the engine coughed while struggling
up a steep incline, I coughed. When the engine sputtered, my heart skipped
a beat. Our lives were tied to that van and she had already broken down
several times, and every fresh hesitation stirred up doubts. But from
Tibet’s border to Golmud was pretty much downhill, and we pulled
into that great, dusty nexus of nothing by about 1:00 a.m, after an exhausting
18 hour drive.
“I’d like a room for two nights,” I told the lady at
the desk. My hope was to have one good night’s sleep before making
the long drive to Xining, for there was no place to stop between Golmud
and Xining, except perhaps at a camel crossing. The desk clerk remembered
me from two weeks earlier. She hadn’t taken kindly that, because
of my Permanent Residence, I’d asked to pay Chinese rates, which
were half those for foreign friends.
“Only one night,” she said, yet again.
Golmud is the only place in China where one night stands are official
After the briefest of rests, we set out on what I suspect is China’s
best stretch of highway, the Xining to Qinghai stretch. In spite of mountain
switchbacks and stretches of hostile desert and salt flats, we made over
800 kilometers in just 9 hours. Our tight time schedule begrudgingly allowed
two nights in refreshing Xining, and then we drove in ignorant bliss onto
highway 212—the worst highway in China.
For centuries, Sichuanese scoffed at imperial edicts with, “The
mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” We soon knew why.
Our plan was to back track to Lanzhou and cut south on highway 212 through
Gansu, over the Qinling mountains into northern Sichuan and then south
to Chengdu. It was simplicity itself on paper. Shannon traced our route
on the map and said, “It’s only about 6 inches, Dad!”
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"Harder to Climb Than The Sky" Good old Chinese
map legends. Highway 212 was supposedly an ‘asphalt trunk’
road, with a few fractions of an inch (on the map at least) of common
‘trunk road.’ I learned the hard way that ‘trunk road’
meant to pack your trunk because you’d be there awhile. As Libo,
the celebrated Tang Dynasty poet and drunkard, wrote,
“Oh, how dangerous!
Sichuan’s roads are rough and cliffs are high,
“They’re harder to climb than the sky.”
The torturous route followed by the Xi’an
– Chengdu train should have clued me in on what lay ahead. Though
only 669 kilometers long, the train crosses 998 bridges and bores through
335 tunnels. And few people in their right mind would drive that route,
so the road has far fewer tunnels and bridges. Since we did not go through,
we went over, and around, and around, and over, deng deng. For the entire
stretch we were either climbing in first gear or riding the brakes as
we careened up and down a roller coaster of bumpy, hairpin curves scratched
into nearly vertical cliff faces. Overloaded logging trucks racing down
the middle of the narrow, rutted dirt roads, forcing me to hug the cliffs
even though I was determined not to give in to the ‘hero drivers.’
We went up and down so many times that I began to feel like I was back
on the Twilight Zone set – the episode in which every road led back
to the center of the deserted town, and in the end a gigantic chubby fist
grabbed the couple’s car and tossed them into the toy chest. Every
time a cloud darkened the sky I cringed, waiting for those chubby fingers,
but I saw naught but merciless rows of mountains, row after row, as far
as we could see, in front and back and to both sides. Granted, it was
beautiful. Sichuan must be the most beautiful province in China. But I’d
soon had enough of the picturesque peaks and the primeval forest homes
of giant pandas and, so I hear, the abominable snow woman (who according
to local lore occasionally kidnaps local men to replace her worn out mates).
On the rare stretches of flat road, farmers piled rice and straw a foot
thick, for miles without a break, so the rare passing truck or car could
thresh it. And every kilometer or so the road was washed out and we slowed
to a crawl as we forded a stream or two, hoping it was no deeper than
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Slip, Slidin’ Away
At long last we reached Sichuan’s newly tarred roads, which gave
us a greater appreciation for the humble dirt roads we’d left behind.
These roads skimmed the very crests of the mountain, bisecting the ranges
like a giant swath of India ink laid on by some legendary Chinese immortal
wielding a Brobdingnagian brush. On either side, the cliffs plummeted
to the plains far below. We felt more like we were in a plane than in
Toy Ota, but perhaps we flew too high, for we almost shared Icarus’
fate as the blazing Sichuan sun seared the tar that gave us wings, and
the road became a slippery morass. It was like driving on a hot wok slathered
in peanut oil. I slowed to a crawl, a mere 4 or 5 mph, and even then slipped
sideways several times.
Sue and boys leaned instinctively but ineffectually to the left as the
van edged to the right and skirted 1,500 foot cliffs, and they leaned
back to the left when we cut around the right. They looked like a trio
of Laker’s fans doing the wave. When at length we reached the plains
far below, we passed the crumbled hulks of buses and trucks that had descended
in a more straightforward fashion.
Peasants, we learned, feared the slippery peaks centuries before they
were tarred, and long ago took to wearing shoes with sharp nails protruding
from the soles to protect themselves on the muddy, treacherous heights.
Even today, the Sichuanese expression for an overly prudent person is
one who “holds a walking stick while wearing nailed shoes.”
I wonder if anyone has tried nailed car tires?
The south side of the Qinling peaks was a different world from the deserts
and howling winds and the swirling yellow dust of the Gansu plains to
the north, which was more like a setting from the movie “Dune.”
Sichuan’s southern plains were warm and moist, and blanketed in
fields of wheat and beans and vegetables, all watered by ancient networks
of streams and ditches. It was obvious why the Emperors coveted this land,
and why Beijing keeps the 998 bridges and 335 tunnels in good repair.
Sichuan has always been known as the “Land of Heaven,” or
“Land of Abundance,” and a good thing too. This remote mountain
fastness is the most populated province in China.
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Enchanting Chengdu We had planned only two days in Chengdu
but stayed five, and would have happily lingered a month had not my students
in Xiamen been waiting for me to begin classes. We were entranced with
this far-flung city’s marriage of modern and ancient Chinese architecture,
of classical parks and chic shopping centers (including one bustling under
ground mall). Chengdu is also justly famous for its ancient tea gardens,
some of which have been run by the same families for centuries. And there
is, of course, the fiery food. The object of Sichuan cuisine, which is
essentially hot peppers with a little meat and vegetables tossed in to
save face, is to tantalize, or perhaps to torture, the taste buds. Most
dishes are either blisteringly spicy, lip puckering sour, cloyingly sweet,
or saltier than Lot’s wife. As a youth with a cast iron stomach
to match my cast iron head, I used to devour Mexican jalapeno peppers
whole, by the dozen, but Sichuan cooking brought respectful tears to my
Locals say that they eat hot, spicy food to protect themselves from the
damp rainy climate, and to eliminate the “cold evils” and
the “wet evil” from the body, but I think the economic explanation
makes more sense. For the hungry poor, a few cheap chili peppers can make
an immense bowl of meatless rice go down better, and in the winter, scantily
clad peasants chew salted chilis to bring out a sweat and a sense of warmth.
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Bamboo China is the bamboo center of the
world, and Sichuan is the bamboo capital of China. Vast mountain ranges
are blanketed with magnificent groves, and meandering through them is
like making a pilgrimage through an awe-inspiring bamboo cathedral, with
gigantic grasses (for they are grasses, not trees) towering far above.
No wonder that Chinese art portrays bamboo more frequently than anything
else, or that an ancient Chinese poet echoed common sentiment by penning,
“Better to live without meat than without bamboo.”
The live forests nurture the spirit, the tender shoots feed the body,
and the skeletal remains have hundreds of uses. In 1615, a Jesuit priest
wrote that the Chinese,
“have a kind of reed called ‘Bamboo’ by the Portuguese.
It is almost as hard as iron. It is hollow inside and presents many joints.
The Chinese use it for pillars and shafts of lances as well as for 600
other domestic uses.”
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He was far too conservative. Chinese claim
there are over 1,000 uses for this giant grass, to which Chinese ascribe
all the attributes of a superman – chastity, honesty, gentleness,
humbleness. They see the bamboo as strong, yet hollow and empty –
even as a humble man is not filled with his own importance.
Bamboo has so many uses that even our home province, Fujian, made more
money exporting bamboo artifacts than the famous tea that has figured
in so many episodes of Western history, from the Mad Hatter’s tea
party to that wilder one in Boston.
Bamboo has been used to make shirts, shoes, chairs, tables, dishes, shelves,
scaffolds, bridge piers, houses, pens, hats, rakes, chairs, tables, stools,
beds, musical instruments, dippers, pipes to blow the fire, strainers,
steamers, chopsticks, kettle cleaners, dust pans, brooms, drain pipes,
handles, smoking pipes, back scratchers (which in Chinese are aptly dubbed,
“not call man”), pig baskets, cradles, toys, fences, gates,
rope, screens, flour mills, hen coops, bird cages, tally sticks, lanterns,
knitting needles, curtains, and umbrellas. To top it off, bamboo shoots,
whether stir-fried or pickled, are delicacies of the first order. And
most importantly nowadays, no plant panders to a panda’s palate
Now that’s a mouthful.
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Bamboo Paper Bamboo paper
is treasured by artists because it is soft, absorbent, and snow white.
The bamboo is felled in August and chopped into small chunks, and workers
sing while rhythmically pounding it to pieces. They soak the pieces in
a lime pond for half a month before removing and cleaning them, and boiling
them for a week. Then more pounding and singing, after which the fibers
are washed and then stirred to a pulp.
Perhaps the most crucial of the 72 steps in bamboo papermaking is scooping
the pulp onto a bamboo screen held by two people. They swing the screen
carefully, expertly, to spread the pulp out evenly, and when the pulp
has dried it is cut into squares of smooth, white paper – provided
that no one has cursed it with a slip of the tongue.
There are many superstitious customs associated with papermaking. Workers
are fed white tofu so that the paper will also be white, and it is forbidden
to speak the word ‘black’ or ‘protrusion,’ lest
the paper become spotted, or not be smooth. Papermakers help cover their
bases by worshipping Cai Lun, the legendary creator of paper and tutelary
god of papermakers. Before Cai Lun came along, scholars wrote on tortoise
shells, bones and metal, and later moved on to bamboo slips and wooden
tablets. Silk was also used, but it was too dear for any but the Emperor.
Eventually, Cai Lun discovered how to make paper from a pulp of hemp,
bits of rope, rags and old fishing nets, and he has been worshipped ever
since by both the papermakers and the bureaucratic devotees of the cult
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Deviate an inch, lose a thousand miles. Old Chinese Proverb
Down the Garden Path Students
awaited teacher, so we took leave of Chengdu and headed south for Kunming,
which should have been a rather simple 3 day drive but took an entire
About 300 km. south of Chengdu, we came upon a fork in the road that neither
compass nor map helped decipher. We asked directions and were told to
go right, into a valley that spiraled high into the clouds. As we ascended
the winding road the sky grew darker, the air chill, and we passed more
and more Tibetan trucks.
Curiouser and curiouser.
Finally we reached an impasse: the second head-on truck collision in two
hours. Two logging trucks racing around a tight switchback had butted
heads --inevitable with both hogging the center. I learned that the scenario
is repeated at least once daily on this one curve, each time the traffic
backing up for miles in both directions, but locals appreciate the economic
windfall. While both parties argue over liability (though both could plead
innocent by virtue of insanity), enterprising vendors sell bananas and
tangerines, cakes, boiled eggs, tea and suspect mineral water to stranded
I asked impatiently, “Is there another route to Kunming?”
The peasants laughed heartily. “Kunming? This goes to Jagsamka!
A Tibetan trucker grinned and said, “Tashee Deelay!”
I ordered Shannon and Matthew to get their tongues back in their mouths.
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Stranded We retraced
our 8 hour drive to find that in our absence heavy rains had washed out
the highway. For 3 days we could neither press on to Kunming nor retreat
to Chengdu. But it was a pleasant place to be stranded.
The air was crisp and clean, and our small guesthouse beside the highway
afforded us a sweeping panorama of the surprisingly modern mountain town
of Mingshan, which perched precariously on the hillsides above the river
far below. Most of the people had never seen foreigners, but they were
honest and charged us the same prices for food, lodging, even car repairs,
as they charged locals.
While I was strolling up one of the steep streets, a couple of middle
aged military officers strolling arm in arm saw me. Their jaws dropped
and in unison they said, “Foreign devil!”
I smiled and said, “Chinsese devil! How are you?” They were
taken aback, but I laughed, and they laughed too, and we chatted. One
asked me, “Did you fly from America or take the train?”
If he’s a military strategist, America has nothing to fear.
It took 3 days for a monster yellow bulldozer, and an army of laborers
wielding pick axes and shovels, to remove most of the 30 foot pile of
rubble that had blocked half the highway and washed the other half into
the raging torrent below. A crowd of well-wishers gathered as we checked
out of the guesthouse, and the landlady said, “Be careful. Never
drive at night. Bandits! A Japanese disappeared six months ago and we
haven’t seen him since!”
With these words of encouragement ringing in my ears I waved goodbye.
A mile down the road we reached the destroyed section of highway, where
we inched through the rubble and the curtain of water still pouring from
the cliffs above, and we prayed we would not be washed off the crumbling
When we reached the pavement on the far side, I breathed a sigh of relief,
but prematurely: I ran over a massive boulder, misaligning the motor mount
so badly that for the remaining 4,000 km. the van vibrated like the prop
planes on the Xiamen to Fuzhou flight.
That night, our increasingly testy Toy Ota stalled going up one of the
mountains in the middle of the so-called ‘bandit region,’
so we retreated 7 km. to the little town of Miyi, just shy of Yunnan Province.
We stayed two nights while the van was again “fixed,” but
they fixed nothing but our purse, for the van was still out of whack.
(What, exactly, is a whack?).
But MiYi had a nice hotel and friendly people, and we enjoyed nice, cheap
meals at a restaurant that boasted a chic red and gold English Sign: “Nice
and Cheap Restaurant.”
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The road from Miyi to Kunming was fairly smooth and sparsely traveled,
though we still passed half a dozen crunched vehicles, including a white
sedan nosed halfway under a semi-truck. An hour later the mangled sedan
barreled past us around a blind mountain curve as if the driver had learned
nothing from his recent marriage to the semi.
We were so far behind schedule that we could spend only two nights in
Kunming, but we visited its most famous attraction, the Stone Forest.
Swarms of Sani maidens volunteered to guide us down beautiful, paved walkways
and across bridges winding between the Dr. Seuss-style pillars of rock.
They pointed out the most unusually shaped rocks, rang the “bell
rock,” and offered us beautiful handicrafts at a one-time-only special
price given only to friends even though you’re a rich foreigner
and could pay more. Susan purchased an intricately embroidered wall hanging
that she later framed and hung over the piano, and the boys and I haggled
over quartz crystals and fossilized mollusks.
Huang Guoshu or Niagara? Our next stop, two days distant,
was Guizhou province’s Huang Guoshu, site of China’s largest
waterfall. This waterfall must have made quite an impression on six year
old Matthew, for when we visited Niagara Falls the following summer, and
marveled over its size and majesty, the born in America but assembled
in China kid harrumphed, and said, “Huang Guoshu is bigger.”
“It is not,” I said. “Niagara Falls is five times bigger
than Huang Guoshu.”
Matthew thought a moment, and then said, “Well, Huang Guoshu is
That it is. More beautiful yet is to have children that have learned to
love both countries. Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the kingdom
From Huang Guoshu we cruised for hours along a refreshingly modern highway
that wound past surrealistic landscapes dotted with colorful, quaint villages
snuggled up against the bases of strangely shaped, cave-riddled karst
peaks, the sheer cliffs of which were terraced from top to bottom and
planted in rice and corn. Guizhou Province is a vast Chinese rock garden,
giving even the famous peaks of Guilin a run for their money.
After two days of navigating some horrendous Guanxi roads and outmaneuvering
a gang of road thugs intent on lightening our purse, we reached Yangshuo,
our favorite Chinese hamlet, just 66 kilometers south of Guilin. Shannon
and Matthew had a reunion with a little Chinese girlfriend they had not
seen in six months, and we enjoyed the scenery and the Chinese style Western
food in “Susan’s Café,” “Mickey Mao’s,”
and “MacMao’s.” Then we braced ourselves for the final
3 day leg to Xiamen, but to our delight a new road not even on the map
cut the three days to two (3 years later we did the drive in 21 hours.)
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Pit Stop at Home A full three months after our stealthy predawn departure,
we pulled into Xiamen University, but the adventure was not over yet.
During our entire trip, I was stuck only once, in Mongolia (though I was
almost caught in a mud trap in Guanxi, which had already engulfed half
a dozen semi trucks, and I almost ran down four leather jacketed gangsters
who tried to extort money when their mud trap failed). But the day after
returning to Xiamen University, while backing Toy Ota down the hill below
our apartment, I plunged smack into a hole in the middle of the road,
a hole that had appeared during our 3 month absence. It was so deep that
one wheel rose a foot in the air, and I, who had boasted that Toy Ota
could go more places than a 4-wheel drive jeep, had to be towed out.
Over 35,000 kilometers, only to be stuck 100 meters from home! But as
Confucius said, “C’est la vie.” Especially
Last Updated: May 2007
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