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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.

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