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The New World: Part I, Welcome to China.

July 17, 2015

[Readers Note: This post is part of  The New World—a thematic series of writings and reflections on travel & exploration. Travel light.]

རྩ་ཐང. rtsa thang. grassland.

Early next morning I met my new friend, Renqing Dongyao, at the Hezuo bus-station. Our verbal conversations were limited, as he had recently started to learn English. In fact, we were heading south on our way through the Northwest part of Sichuan into the Aba Prefecture to meet his “English teacher.”

Our gestures were genial, like two children in a playground. I showed him US currency. He showed me Tibetan prayer beads. I would later have a more profound experience with these beads and its meditative mantra – Om Mani Padme Hum. We would be sitting in his grandfather’s home, constructed from a mixture of earth and soil, while the dark, ancient looking old-man with cataract eyes, sat crosslegged and solemn — his time-hardened fingers slowly, purposefully, caressing and moving the individual prayer beads. Filling the air for the next several hours, faintly, and into eternity along his breath. Om Mani Padme Hum. Om Mani Padme Hum.

The bus continued to ramble along an endless dirt road.  Outside of the dusty window all seemed dry, immense and sparsely populated.  In total we were to travel roughly 530km before reaching Renqing’s family, somewhere deep within the grassland valleys of the Aba Prefecture. Our immediate plan was to meet Renqing’s English-speaking friend in his hometown, where we would spend the night. The following afternoon we were to be picked-up by Renqing’s father and brother, and escorted on big-wheeled red Honda dirt-bikes that populated these one-horse Tibetan autonomous villages.

Suddenly the bus came to a stop and the door opened. A green suited Chinese soldier boarded and looked around at the passengers. It was a small transport vehicle and we couldn’t have been more than twenty-five passengers in total. He stared around and instantly locked eye contact with me towards the back, motioning for me to get up. I followed him off the bus carrying my army green canvas backpack, and showed him my valid US passport and PRC tourist visa. He was a tall, well built soldier – as many of them appear to be. I recall being in Tiananmen Square for the first time and witnessing the flag ceremony – a military routine that occurs everyday at sunrise and sunset, in which the People’s Republic National Guard puts on a powerful public display of force and discipline. Thousands of Chinese nationals, from provinces all over the Country come to observe, and its truly a magnificent representation of the Nation’s diversity. All of those who come, likely for their first and last time, to the Nation’s capital, Beijing (formerly known as Peking). And how tall, well-built these young, serious soldiers appear to be. Distinct from the rest of China’s population, really, a breed of their own, as if they are grown somewhere from the very beginning and nurtured into this formality of being.

Tiananmen Square Flag Ceremony. April 2009.

Tiananmen Square Flag Ceremony. April 2009. © Original Photo by Author.

This was my first up-close, personal encounter with the PRC National Guard. It was an anxious moment in the journey, and it wasn’t until many months later that I realized the significance of this encounter. The soldier spoke English fairly well, and asked me several questions. When he was convinced that I was innocent enough he thanked me, and said, “Welcome to China.” Had I hinted some alternative motive to being in this Autonomous Region of Tibet it is likely that this story would have taken another path. I was aware of the ‘incidents’ that had taken place in Lhasa a little over one-year ago, in March 2008. Yet, I held no ideological, political or personal convictions. My knowledge of the events, region and history were limited. All I knew was that due to its recent history, travel for foreigners (Wàiguó rén) was severely limited.

I was glad to continue on the way…so was my friend, Renqing, when I was permitted back on-board.

Remembrance [An Interlude].

July 16, 2015

sema.sem.soul.

The last post here was on January 3, 2013. It feels like a lifetime ago. And now, the blinking cursor on the screen, similar to a heart beating, provides a constant reminder of time. The passage of time, that is. I recall thinking that one day all this dreaming would catch up to me. The stark reality of life would force its way, inevitably — and such is ones fate.

This morning a cool breeze greeted us through our Manhattan bedroom window. The sensation was penetrating. The moments lasted long, the breaths became deeper, the feelings came rushing back into my heart and soul. What is this essence riding along the wind? Such sensation of joy that begets weeping. Of freedom. Of the world.

Have they forgotten what it feels like
To be greeted by the wind?
From hundreds of miles away,
To wonder where it may begin.
 – C. Jarlsberg, Poet

Such sentiment has beckoned a remembrance. Life will present these moments if one chooses to be open. Reality has taught this, and so hold on. Hold on tight to memories, dreams, ambitions, hopes and desires.  Tight enough so that they may find you once again, along a gentle breeze.

The New World: Part I, Along the Way

January 3, 2013

[Readers Note: This post is part of  The New World—a thematic series of writings and reflections on travel & exploration. Travel light.]

經驗. jīngyàn. experience.

Wutaishan, Shanxi

Wutaishan, Shanxi

Variables in life’s basic formula have always possessed an essence of intrigue, beauty and madness. The “un’s” — unknown, uncertainty, unpredictable, and unexpected are simply part of this equation. The spectrum of these variables can be defining. In other words, how open one is to experience varies greatly from individual to individual. Ideological barriers and societal pressures often manufacture fear, comfort and conformity that limit life’s variables and define experience. Basic elements, such as the need for shelter, clothing, food have generated a world of currency, industry and commerce that is inseparable from our own daily lives–and these too can limit the range of “un’s”, and variables of experience.  I do not take the position that one who travels the world and the seven seas has an experience more full, valuable or greater than one who lives and dies by the plow. For one mans soil is another’s footpath.

The horse trekking guide from Langmusi was correct, they were not selling bus tickets to foreigners at Langzhou for travel into Langmusi. So I made my way towards the bus parking-lot, asked a few questions, and paid a Chinese bus driver some RMB. He indicated a small tour bus where I laid low in a seat towards the back for thirty minutes or so. The bus would soon be heading south ~240km, towards a small dusty transport-hub and village called Hezuo. From here I would connect to another bus towards Langmusi. As I mentioned, one of my interests on this trip was visit grasslands. Open space was beckoning.

When we arrived in Hezuo I learned that the ‘connecting’ bus towards Langmusi had already left. There was only one scheduled bus a day that departed around noon. I made my way towards what seemed to be the only restaurant in town, ordered a bowl of steaming noodles and sat down to eat. There were few people around, aside from a table full of young adults sitting nearby. I noticed that they were wearing a strange costume–what seemed to be an oversized and thick bathrobe of earthy tones. Later, I learned this to be a traditional Tibetan outfit worn by the males. They noticed the foreigner, and several minutes later one of these thick-long black haired and sun burnt individuals asked in decent English if I wanted to join them at their table. We exchanged basic greetings and I learned that most of them were students at a nearby school. After lunch we climbed up a small hill decorated in Tibetan prayer flags.  It was dry, and not much greenery, but we sat here anyway—-the primary colors of small flags attached along a string fluttered in the hot-breeze and we looked out towards the hills. It was the first time I had ever heard the Tibetan spoken language.

I was invited to the school, and watched as many of the younger students participated in a traditional dance–locking arms, circling and kicking their feet into the air. I enjoyed the music, filled with the rapid plucking of strings and high-pitched vocals. I was asked to join.  My new friends had taking a liking to the foreigner, and the ease of their welcoming was apparent. And as the afternoon continued, slowly, this place became more than a hot and dusty transport hub. The connecting bus was long gone, and momentarily so would any of the plans that I originally had.

“Do you want to go with my friend to his home,” asked the same student who approached me at the restaurant, “his family is nomadic. Nomadic family. He leaves tomorrow on a bus.”

This one I wouldn’t miss.

The New World: Part I, The Itinerary

December 14, 2012

[Readers Note: This post is part of  The New World—a thematic series of writings and reflections on exploration. Travel light….]

南.nán. south.

In the past month I’ve broken many adhered to conventions on this blog site.  Then again, this is precisely what it is all about.

I wish to share with you a story that has changed my life to this very day.  It occurred several years ago, during the Summer of 2009.  I was finishing my job as an English teacher at a local public school in the Autonomous Region of Ningxia, a small province of China situated just below inner-Mongolia. Pretty soon I would be leaving China altogether and departing to the United States. Fortunately, I had the leisure of one final adventure.

Total Distance: ~ 1,228 km                               Duration: ~ 1 month

Map + Journey (2xZoom)

The title of this post is a misnomer. Itinerary, as defined, is a planned route or journey and/or a travel document recording these. I had neither.  It began with a simple plan. To head south towards a bustling city called Chengdu. From there I would fly back north to gather my stuff and catch a train to Beijing. I had neither commitments, nor reservations. In the weeks leading up to my departure I had, however, cultivated several interests:

I would be travelling on a shoestring budget so all my commuting would be low to the ground.  I had interest in travelling into Tibet, however, there were outstanding elements keeping me away. It was 2009 and the not-so-distant uprisings in Lhasa were discouraging foreigners from entering the region without proper authorization and permits. It was even required to hire a local driver to take you around in a 4wd. Far outside of my budget. Even surrounding areas, known as Prefectures and Tibetan Autonomous Regions, were not accessible to foreigners via public transportation. Several days before leaving Ningxia, I managed to have a brief email exchange with a well-established horse trekking guide from Langmusi:

“In Lanzhou, now the south bus station won’t sell the bus ticket to foreigners. You just can get on the bus out of the station and pay to the driver. Take the bus from Lanzhou to Diebu and get off the bus at Langmusi Bridge. There are two drivers’ number of the buses from Lanzhou to Diebu : 13884063558 and 13893413283. The driver can’t speak English, you need ask some chinese people to help you to call him.  If you fail on calling the driver. Just go to the south bus station in Lanzhou and buy a ticket to Linxia. They will sell you this ticket, but will ask you for two photo copies of your passport. And the bus from Lanzhou to Linxia will have a stop in Linxia at 12:00a.m for around half an hour at the front of the restaurant named “清雅斋(Qing Ya Zhai)”. Call me at any time when you get troubles.”
—-
End of June, 2009.  Yinchuan, Ningxia Autonomous Region (PRC)
It was hot & sweaty when I left. I had packed my belongings in a green army bag that my Uncle had used during his service as a para-trooper in Vietnam. Just a few days before departing, what seemed to be necessities, were no longer. My iPod had mysteriously swallowed all of my music into oblivion, and my camera lens was broken. I had clothes, money, travel documents, a notebook, harmonica, swiss army knife, and some other oddities. I had no travel guide, but had printed out some material, such as that email above.
The sensation of anticipation before travelling varies. It depends on the elements. For this trip, it would be an adventure. Minimal Commitments + Minimal Direction + Willingness + Time. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I am no explorer, I am to much of a mama’s boy. I’ve met countless travelers that have taken trips exponentially longer than I have. Many have gone on journeys of no end. The heart of the story that I wish to share with you now, lasted a total of 5-days. And there is so much more to tell….
First Letter of Contact

Poetry in Motion

December 7, 2012

生活. shēnghuó. life.

Poetry is not for everyone. Musicians have it easy, I say. The opportunity to embed lyrics within music provides the listener with the freedom to seamlessly tune in and out of words. It also provides a sanctuary for the lyricist–who finds a natural home for his ramblings. Indeed, music is perhaps the most powerful instrument of expression that has ever existed.

That said, I’ve always been dismissive of posting poetry on this blog-site. In its true form I’ve found poetry to be the most naked form of writing–a bare and fully-exposed expression without the warm layers of a musical cloth. So, a compromise. I’ve just spent the last twenty-minutes or so searching for a way to embed the song of inspiration into this post to go along with the poem below. Alas, I have done so.

So if you wish, while reading, you may play the music by a throat singing group from the semi-autonomous Tuva Republic, Russian Federation, which is situated north of Chinese Turkestan, to the west of the Mongolian border, Huun-huur-Tu and listen to the track called ‘Xöömeyimny Kagbas-la Men (I Will Not Abandon My Xöömei)’ .

On Your Way
Before our eyes a world is unveiling / Undressing herself for all to see. / Take to my waters and get sailing / Go, she beckons, be free.

So together we must go / Riding high upon your winds. / And only then truly know, / Where our world together begins.

Know no end / As you go your Way. / Like the rivers that bend / Toward my oceans someday.

Your past is a history, / One just like my own. / The future a mystery, / With the present to roam.

Journey this space, / And take with you too, / My blessings of grace / For the soul of your shoe.

To walk paths untrodden, / Where no footprints may remain. / In the places all but forgotten, / Where history stands still, unchanged.

Be the mightiness of my mountains, / Remember the vastness of my seas. / Drink from meandering rivers crouching / With nature and all her needs.

And do tell others, / What you find along the Way. / So they too may tell their brothers / That the sun shines another day.

For heavy chains of living, / Have gotten many down. / In this life forever giving,/ From the Heavens to the ground.

Oh! Stars of the night / No one of you the same. / So many of you alike / Like falling drops of rain.

Who will live to see them shine? / In all their naked glory. / Who will live to take this time, / To listen to life’s own story.

The New World

December 5, 2012

Readers Note: This post is the first of The New World–a thematic series of writings and reflections on exploration. Travel light….

未知. wèizhī. unknown.

“If life is a circle, than your goal is to keep expanding this circle, making it bigger. But in order to expand this circle, you must first know what is inside.” – a mommy’ism

Yugong Yishan is the title of an ancient Chinese fable about a man whose perseverance allowed him to move a mountain.

Yugong Yishan is the title of an ancient Chinese fable about a man whose perseverance allowed him to move a mountain.

Why does one travel? What is it that beckons a soul into the unknown, unexplored regions of the world. Today, exploratory travel is not as it was in the past. Due primarily to the relentless tides of human progress our lives are saturated with interconnections–with other people, spaces, and time. Simply put, there are less and less spaces, places and faces in the world where ‘no man has been before’. Our understanding of pure exploration is no where near what our rugged forefathers embraced it as.

Now, I am by no means an explorer. Although I like to consider myself as one, I am not, and never will be. I have, however, had several journeys along the way, and one where I can truly claim to be the only white man to ever step foot.  Although I have been far from the physical place we refer to as home, it is home that often drives me outward unto this beautiful creation we call life.

Signs

November 30, 2012

起源.qǐyuán.origins.

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  – T.S. Elliot

~ 2-years ago:

During the summer of 2010 I crossed-paths with a unique group of individuals. Eventually, this encounter would cultivate into so much more. As a major artery for my China experience, the Lotus Cultural Center, and the people involved, are still present today.

The Lotus Center, located in the heart of Beijing, was a sanctuary for minorities, foreigners and locals alike. Nestled into a quiet, cozy hutong off the busy Nanluoguxiang walking street, this special space was fertile soil for good times.  But not the kind of good times you would find in a local bar, rather a hybrid between home, school, local restaurant, youth hostel, bar and art space. A place where a Canadian rockstar volunteers time teaching an English-language class about pregnancy. A place where, by candlelight, songs of home are performed in Mongolian. On any given day you may learn Japanese, dance to Tibetan music and spin records with a famous Japanese DJ. Meet journalists, insurance brokers, bankers, painters, chefs, Himalayan mountain climbers, musicians, students, politicians, photographers, teachers, business owners and the unemployed. All are welcome, none are turned away, as this kind of place usually finds you for a reason.

Unfortunately, a lack of sufficient funding forced the original Lotus Cultural Center to close its doors as of the Summer of 2011. Still, its essence is far from gone, and its spirit is anything but dead.

~ 3 months ago (Brooklyn, NY): A friend introduces us to a space along the East River–Ran Tea House. “Located in the emerging art center of Brooklyn, RAN SPACE, namely RAN TEA HOUSE, is a platform geared towards promotion and communication of the art in intercultural contexts. With flexible showing room, multimedia stage, pleasant atmosphere, RAN SPACE is looking forward to every possible intersection of art or not-yet art, creating an intellectual community for rising artists, filmmakers, musicians, and culture practitioners, especially the big Asian family.”

~1 month ago: Intimate conversation inspired by the Lotus Cultural Center (Beijing) with the RAN SPACE owner (who goes by the English name…wait for it…LOTUS)  expressing interest to collaborate for cultural exchange events and language-learning programs.

~2 weeks ago: LOTUS CULTURE FOUNDATION is born.

~1 day ago: First date for Chinese language course is set – DECEMBER 15, 2012