Monday, August 27, 2018

Woe to the Vanguard

My daughter popped in my office early.  She was supposed to be at school this morning at 7:00AM for a field trip.  It was now 5:45AM.  “Aren’t you supposed to be there at 7:00AM, my love?”  “Yeah.  I want to get there early.”  “Alright.  Let me get dressed for the gym.”

She was off to Ping Yao, in Shanxi this morning with the rest of her eighth-grade mates. I remember Ping Yao.  The Mrs. and I visited the remarkable, medieval city back in 1998.  I don’t think it was the must-see destination it is now.  I don’t believe it was called out in the 98’ Lonely Planet.  I suspect we’d heard about it by word-of-mouth. 

I told my daughter about what it was like to stand above the main city gate.  I remember looking down into the inner courtyard you’d need to walk through to get to the second city gate.  Innocuous architectural flourish until it was explained that this was a defensive measure.  Invaders who made it past the front gate, would be trapped inside, before the second gate, with high walls all around from which archers would fire down on them.  Worse, there were rolling juggernaut devices with spikes protruding that could, it was explained, slaughter dozens of invaders with one roll down the incline.  Woe to the vanguard invaders, certainly.  But once the main city wall had been breached, one can only imagine it would only be a matter of time before the invaders surmounted the next one, over the bodies of their impaled comrades and they would unlikely find themselves in temperate mood with the townspeople who’d let loose these horrible medieval machines. 

“Wait.  There’s a book.  We bought a book when we were there.  Let me find it.  It was a nice book.  There are some great pictures.  Where did we put that book?”  “It’s OK dad.  We’ve got to go.”  “Right.  You remember this Buddha here? This was from Ping Yao.  We got it on that trip.  It was really heavy to carry.” “I know.  It’s heavy.  Do you have the house key?”

Driving over I went on for a while about how Ping Yao had the empire’s (and therefore the world’s) first banks.  The first place to figure out lending notes, and bullion at interest.  And though Ping Yao could have become London or could have become Shanghai, the center of Chinese commerce moved on from Ping Yao, leaving the city frozen in time, preserved for what it was.  “What are you guys going to do there?”  “We have teams and we have to look for stuff.  And then we have time to explore.  Shop.”  I tried to imagine her there, with her friends in the city of my mind’s memory, with two decades of tourist accretions, tourist compromises.   

We parted ways once we were through the security gate at school, I carried on straight ahead to the gym and she went right to pick up some things she said she needed for the trip. 

Wednesday 5/16/18

For Power Projection

Cloudy, hot.  It’s Tuesday morning, two calls in. I’ve got to head to the New York Times after looking through my emails.  There is Ivanka looking breezy with Steve Manukin who looks waxen, and Jarred with Bibi both smiling at the inauguration of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.  And in the other half of the photos are tear gas canisters raining down on protesters, headlines suggesting fifty-eight dead and over 1300 injured in Gaza.  Trump, of course, blames the disturbance on Hamas.   I can only imagine the raw reality of so many people, penned into such a small strip of land, unable to leave, unable to prosper, generations of festering.

Beijing is grey today.  It seems a warm, cloudy grey, rather than a day of smog.  Coming in from the country it isn’t supposed to rain today.  The traffic went well, and we’re moving swiftly enough.  Off to see an old friend who is back in the city from the provinces.  He and his wife are from the revolutionary generation and even though I am gruesomely busy I will make time as we always have something to learn from them when we speak.

Into Dongsi, in old Dongcheng.  A friend’s ATM won’t work.   He called the number on his card and couldn’t get a human being.  He spun round and round in a loop, cursing, demanding an operator.  I learn he has the same bank as mine.  “Here, call the anti-fraud line.”  I need to dial it every other week.  I inform him that he may need to wait for twenty minutes before reaching a human being, but he will, in the end.  He did.  No problem with his card.  Just needs a different ATM.  Life far away from home.

And it is grand to try gouji brandy with an old revolutionary who doesn’t drink but with whom I can test my ideas about Chinese history, before I teach my course.  Will Confucianism experience some kind of resurgence?  When might the Party devise a way to transfer power?  What line of reasoning, if any will China use to persuade the rest of the world, when it concerns the need for power projection?  This was how we spent our lunch, after the stated reason for the visit was through and I’d confirmed that gouji brandy tasted swell.

Tuesday 05/15/18

Up Into the Slope

Riding along the Hong Jiang River today and it looks a bit like the Hudson before it passes through Storm King  The width is about the same and the rounded hills look familiar, as well.  We’re heading to the Hong Jiang old city which is presumably right up along the river bank.  I believe there are old buildings that rise up and up into the slope above the river.  In the morning time, everything is beautiful.  And we are all still hungry. 

Later now, we'd had a good walk through the town and then a quick dash up to catch our gaotie.  We’re sitting now at the McCafe above the Huaihua train station.  Yes.  I will unabashedly confess that I am glad it’s here.  I’m glad to find coffee.  An espresso maker: that is even better.  A few minutes ago I wasn’t nearly so calm.

This was going to be a smooth transaction.  My line to the ticket lady moved the fastest and I submitted three passports and my receipt and watched as she checked, concerned momentarily that perhaps somehow something was wrong but then she pressed the button and out popped three tickets.  We had plenty of time and we made our way over to the entrance and up to the metal detectors, and then was informed by the ticket checker gent that we had tickets for tomorrow’s train.  I check the ticket receipt I’d presented him with.  Indeed.  I’d bought three tickets for tomorrow.  That won’t do. 

Now I rushed back to the same lady, cut the line expressing myself as sorry and excuse me for bothering you but.  There were no seats on the train we’d thought we were traveling on.  But she got us one that was leaving one hour later but arrived three hours later than we’d originally bargained for.  Must be a local train.  I confirmed and once again she pressed the button and out came three tickets but not before she had taken a little red chop and stamp it officially cancelled.

Back in Beijing now, after our nine-hour train ride.  I think I liked the seven-hour version better.  I learned that cabs don’t really queue at the Beijing West station.  Pregnant periods without any cabs at all.  And then a flood of cabs. Someone has placed a megaphone with auto reply in the bushes.  It yells over and over and over that we should not accept unsolicited cabs.  I’m tempted to toss it far away.  This line is not moving.

Monday 05/14/18

Increasingly Excited to Head Out

Dehang is lovely.  Fenghuang was mobbed, even in the pouring rain and no matter what spin you apply, the concentration of Chinese humanity and the amenities built to serve them is overwhelming and compromises the otherwise picturesque setting.  Dehang had some tourists, most of them seemed to come from somewhere in Hunan, and these were reasonable numbers of people.  Dehang is lovely

Arriving we had no hotel.  The one I’d heard about in my book was sold out when I rang them.  Another didn’t answer.  Driving further and further into the countryside with karst cliffs rising higher and further above us I was properly startled to see a phenomenal suspension bridge high,  high up in the clouds spanning the summit of two cliffs above.  I’d heard that this bridge was in the area but I didn’t know it was immediately above Dehang itself, or at least the town down river, Aizhai.  Up ahead we were forced to park and buy tickets before going into the Dehang village. The cab we’d hired in Fenghuang was no longer allowed to proced.  We’d need to walk up another kilometre to the town. 

Cautious, because I didn’t know if we’d find a place to stay, I took our driver’s number and checked at the first hostel kezhan that we saw.  100RMB per night.  An extra twenty if you want the air conditioning.  That was in-budget.  But the view was of another building so we suggested we’d return after looking and were duly warned that we might well loose the rooms if we returned, surly I would have said the same thing if it was my joint, and we proceeded ahead into town and found a woman who showed us up to her second story rooms at the same price that had a slightly better view of the cliffs and the clouds.  I asked about the nine dragons bridge which was something of a rendezvous point and there were more than a few kezhan signs on the far side over the steep arched bridge. 

On the corner was a three-story building packed with guests and I asked the proprietor but he was sold out.  And on to another location but they too were also sold out. A Big group had hit town this weekend.  So now, with a bit more urgency we headed back in the direction we came and found another place en route.  It was someone’s home with an open kitchen to the road and upstairs a simple gent, the father, showed us to our rooms, which had a porch and a view of he river and some drying laundry and for one hundred, plus twenty for the aircon and we were good.  He put my white wine that I’d bought in Fenghuang that morning into his fridge and we returned to the nine dragons bridge for some lunch. 

Up the steep steps and by the window looking down on the rushing river.  Chicken soup, eggplant, and rustic tofu, arrived one by one.  Our cell phones had each found a place to charge.  Sitting there we grew increasingly excited to set out and confront the big waterfall that was somewhere up the river.   The Miao proprietor’s daughters must have been about seven and nine and they served us tea and each dish with rice from a wooden bucket as they Miao do and then they all went to play on the steep dragon bridge.  Everyone in Dehang appears a Miao minority, and the older people still dress that way, in blue coats. 

The walk up proceeded magical as each turn in the road revealed one after another staggering vista up into the peaks,  hung in the air with their white sheer faces beneath verdant tuft tops.  These hills are chlorophyl, aside from the obsidian sheets of rock and they shift in shades of green as the swift moving cloud cover above blocks and reveals the sun light.  There is bamboo green, a lighter ochre that bends like grass on the hills.  Vines are darker hue and the deciduous leaves beneath, broadly occupy the hill hungrily consuming all the sun possible till the cliff faces deny them any soil to cling to.   

Follow the river we’d been told and to so we strode along a newly paved road.  Aside from a three-wheeled car or two, an occasional motorcycle, there were no vehicles on this road.  Just pedestrians ambling along.   Up ahead they were applying hot tarmac to a joint in a small span and the smell strong and oddly pleasing.  And at this point I was so thankful for that walk we’d made in the morning that had prevented any cars getting up to this point. I don’t know that rural Hunan has reached the point where they understand that the absence of traffic is a good thing, something to sell, rather than four lane accessibility.  The guardians of Nanyue peak to the east of Hunan voted for accessibility and have ruined the walk up Hengshan with a busy paved road.

To get to the waterfall we had to cross over a rock path in the water.  The price for slipping would not have been fatal, but rather annoying and soggy.  A woman up ahead stumbled on a shaky rock and then took off her sneaker so she could proceed barefoot.  I noted to our friends the irony of this stone by stone crossing beneath the phenomenal span we passed arriving on the way into Dehang. 

The waterfall itself was far beyond expectations.  Turn the final corner, past the tent selling water and stare all the way up at the straight drop of what must have been nearly 250 meters of a full-throated river’s worth of power driving downward.  The spray was refreshing and there was a trail that went up behind the falls which we carefully made our way towards.  Watching up close you gain a sense for how water actually, falls.  It isn’t just a straight flush of liquid, some fingers ride straight, others digits shoot off into mist and seem to never reach the rocks.  

We were all glad that this place was as beautiful as it was and that it had yet to be ruined.  Quite content really that this place was still requires a slippery stone pathway across the river to access.  But the paved road is nearly done.  And the mighty span above this small Miao Minority river village suggest how pervasive China’s development is and how swiftly this fragile little setting will change forever, like the rest of the country.  A couple wants to take a picture with us and the falls.  They are also from Hunan. 

Sunday 05/13/18