Below are extracts from the book, 44 Days, including the Prologue and four selected chapters, out of 42 total. Each chapter starts with a summary box. The book’s 125 photos are presented at the end of each book section. The eight book sections start with a “Rules of the Road” theme and related quotations from each of Europe, the United States and China.
Rules of the Road: The Future
“Consider the past and you shall know the future.” Chinese proverb
“As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery
“We have come too far, we have sacrificed too much, to disdain the future now.” John F. Kennedy
Welcome aboard China’s 21st Century Express!
The genesis of 44 Days comes about from an interesting alignment of life experiences. Leaving the US in 2010 to return to China after a fourteen year absence, I read several books in succession: Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond; The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter; Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World; Ma Jian’s Red Dust; Chinese Lessons, by John Pomfret, The Tyranny of Good Intentions, by Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence Stratton, and then I translated from French into English, Tibet, the Last Cry, by Eric Meyer and Laurent Zylberman.
I should also include Alexis de Tocqueville and his 1835 masterpiece, Democracy in America. It set the standard for traveling social studies and is largely credited with making this form of science legitimate. I read this book in college and it has had a big impact on me ever since, with Tocqueville’s penetrating observations and quick on his feet analysis of the vast country he was visiting and incredible people he encountered. He pulled no punches and his brutally honest interpretations of Americans and their society are still spot on, almost 200 years later.
I encourage you to read them all. It’s like getting honorary degrees in history, political science and sociology. This scholarly and riveting reading was followed up with many hundreds of hours of research that I undertook on my own. It gained me a deeper understanding of the world’s current events and just how interconnected every region of the globe is. Putting it all together and being back in China, I just had to hit the roads of this country’s hinterland. I wanted to meet its salt of the Earth people face to face, to put China’s past, present and future into perspective, and how it all relates to my native country, the United States, and my ancestral home, Europe. Through it all, my views of the world have evolved and matured beyond my upbringing and what is commonly called the Washington consensus – the official narrative, the status quo. And Beijing, Tokyo, Paris or London for that matter. This will bring inspiration, joy or consternation to your heart, depending on where you are in life’s journey on Planet Earth.
I am writing 44 Days because China matters to its people and everyone else on Planet Earth. The West, principally the United States and Europe equally matters. How these three centers of power interrelate in the 21st century is and will be critical to humanity’s survival. 44 Days is also about my generation’s legacy to the future, which is of great interest and concern to me. What kind of society and planetary environment will my children and grandchildren live in, as they approach the 22nd century? Because of world history over the last 500 years, the West will play a key role in this scenario. With China’s exponential transformation since the 1980s, it too will share an equal part, as each side writes and rewrites this century’s headlines. George Orwell wrote in 1984,
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
As events unfold, which version will most of Earth’s citizens be accepting as the truth?
44 Days in Western China will be a great exploratory adventure for you to travel vicariously. I am excited to share the stunning natural beauty, fascinating cultures and amazing peoples spanning this continent wide country. It will also be a unique opportunity to take China’s temperature and check its pulse, so to speak, and compare it to the health of the West, with a keen eye on past and current events, while looking to the future. I will meet and talk with hundreds of Chinese across five provinces, covering thousands of kilometers on buses, trains and on foot; trekking through wilderness, big cities, rural towns and tiny hamlets.
I have unique perspectives to do so. I was born, raised and got a public school education through college, in the heartland of the United States. In graduate school, I traveled to Brazil in hopes of seeking my fortune (1978 – I learned Portuguese fluently). Thereafter, I was a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Tunisia (1980-82) then in Africa and Middle East for eight years (1982-90), where I learned Arabic and French fluently, married a French woman and became a dual national world citizen; then seven years in China (1990-97, learning Mandarin fluently and becoming a father of two children); then in Normandy, France (1997-2001), returned to the USA (2001-2010) and now back in China (2010-present). Through it all, I worked in corporate management and business ownership for 28 years and teaching seven. All of these itinerations have brought me into contact with thousands of individuals from every walk of life: princes, paupers, politicos, populists, tin pot tyrants, worldly saints and humble citizens – originals all, and most just trying to survive and be happy. They have taught me, and continue to help me hone my skills at observing, seeing the big picture, as well as the nuances and details of daily life that paint the portrait of a country, its people, their culture and where they are headed. Yes, a jaundiced eye is useful when necessary, but I am not a hopeless cynic, nor a misanthrope. I love humanity in its panoply of colors and characters, warts and all… Today, this cultural curiosity and keen eye is becoming paramount in China. We can all hold our collective breath when the most important tectonic shift of the 21st century arrives: the West and the rest of the world will be playing second fiddle to the world’s new Number One economic superpower, the People’s Republic of China. It will be just as transformative to how the world does business as the last great continental change in the planet’s pecking order: when the US became the biggest economy after WWII, as Europeans watched their 500 years of colonial, resource-rich real estate devolve into independence for tens of countries in the developing world.
Starting half a millennium ago, rapacious, expansionist and extractive policies first emanated out of Western Europe, then across America to Japan, forging the Industrial Age, and today, this economic model of infinite growth and limitless resources still dominates the world, including China. Conducting their world affairs nowadays, Britain and France seem to have forgotten they no longer control one-third of the world’s lands, or that since WWII, their hubristic hegemony has been passed on to America, with its macho Monroe Doctrine, multiple preemptive interventions and overweening US exceptionalism.1 While China stages the greatest bi-millennial comeback humankind has ever witnessed, the behavior of the United States, with Europe playing sidekick (still trying to relive the salad days of world domination), is provocative and not very encouraging. China has been taking the long view for 2,500 years and is watching and waiting. Historically for the Chinese, spheres of external influence emanated out from their self-perceived center of the world, like concentric circles, with waning interaction the greater the distance; the Americas, Africa and Europe were the furthest.2 But all that changed 150 years ago, when Europe came barging into the Forbidden City, and on through to today, with the United States militarily ensconced in China’s first-sphere neighboring countries, and is now brazenly bringing more than half of its entire naval fleet to cruise up and down the Middle Kingdom’s beaches.3 All of this does not bode well for stability in an ever greater interdependent world, especially with an ascendant, self-assured China, whose leaders and central government I smilingly call Baba Beijing (爸爸北京= Father Beijing). They too have a streak of vainglory and love to jerk the chains of nationalism, when they need to shore up support for their flagship Communist Party. What will China do? History tells us that the Chinese have never had a lasting expansionist policy outside their perceived national boundaries (North Vietnam 1,000 years ago and Tibet and Xinjiang excepted), and only recently has Baba Beijing been looking to the exterior in a big way. Like Europe of old (and America, and Rome and on and on…), China is now in search of badly needed natural resources and commodities, and is on the prowl in every inhabited continent on Earth, especially Africa, making deals and sometimes overbearingly, friends too. Hopefully, this long history of taking care of China’s internal wellbeing and territorial integrity will take precedence, at the expense of international conquest, as it moves to the top of the world’s 21st century economic ladder.
The one period of history that could cause an unpleasant casting change is China’s self-perceived century of humiliation. This was from the 1840s-1940s, when the Qing Dynasty and post-1912 Republic were weak and vulnerable. Britain, France and other industrial powers camped out in China’s big cities and plied (the then) one-fourth of the world’s people with imported opium. China hit its national nadir when the Japanese conquered Manchuria and coastal China, in their bid to rule the world, alongside Hitler and Mussolini. This 100 years of shame still rankles in the local press and is part and parcel of Chinese text- and reference books: Never Forget-Never Again! Thus to this day, it is very much in the socio-political consciousness of the people, from the poorest peasants to the princes of power and politics. In plain and simple terms, 20% of the world’s citizens have a huge, historical chip on their collective shoulder, which should concern us all.4
With the US moving its naval fleet to China’s (as well as Russia’s eastern) shores, preparing to install anti-missile shields in Japan (against both of the just mentioned) and pressing Australia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam to allow American military bases on their soil, all in an ostentatious effort to flaunt its hard power directly in China’s face – the fate of the world literally hangs in the balance. If Baba Beijing does get out of historical character, decides to avenge their dark century and lashes out at the West, the consequences could be unthinkably dire, and the gates of a Hobbesian Hades might be unleashed on the four corners of the planet. It could very well happen, with Russia likely aligning itself with China. And then there are Brazil, India and the other acronymed BRICS countries. They will undoubtedly be forced to choose sides. Which way will they align themselves? The one great historical fulcrum that holds hypnotic sway over all these scenarios, is Baba Beijing’s Heavenly Mandate (天命- tianming). In a nutshell, from the point of view of the Chinese people, it means,
OK Baba, you can govern as long as you keep the country together, you know, keep us proud, protect us, make sure we can feed and shelter ourselves – and just don’t muck it up too badly while you’re at it!
Ever since China was unified by Emperor Qin Shihuang (秦始皇- Qin is where we get the name, China) in 221 BC, this Heavenly Mandate has been and still is to assure peace, prosperity and the people’s wellbeing, while maintaining the territorial integrity of the empire. And you will notice that it has no notions of democracy and elections, concepts that are totally absent from China’s two plus millennial political DNA. The proudly un-Western Heavenly Mandate continues to color and will forever trump everything Baba Beijing does, vis à vis the United States, Europe, Africa and its immediate Asian neighbors. China’s almost genetic encoding and fealty to this ancient, celestial chronicle of its leaders, peoples, the ebb and flow of its borders and its relations with the outside world, is central to any rational understanding of what will happen across our planet in the years to come. To ignore it is to possibly risk catastrophe.
That is why 44 Days has such an important story to tell you about the past, present and future: the Middle Kingdom in the 21st century, with the United States, Europe and the fate of the world in its looking glass, as Baba Beijing leads its citizens surging into our third millennium. China is changing so rapidly and its peoples evolving equally dramatically; it is essential for humanity’s survival to understand and put into perspective all of these head spinning and vitally critical developments. This voyage and all of China’s staggering scenic wonders, eclectic cultures and getting eye to eye with the country’s many peoples are the extra icing on your cake. On the day China officially takes its place at the head of the world’s economic table, a lot is at stake for you, me and our children. I’ll be here at ground zero when it happens, watchfully observing and interacting up close with the country, its regions and peoples. Until then, all aboard China’s 21st Century Express and bon voyage… or as we say in Mandarin,
(Zouba!! = Let’s go!!)
Jeff J. Brown, China
1- The Week the World Stood Still: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Ownership of the World: chomsky.info/articles/20121015.htm.
2- Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order: Second Edition, 2012, a mainstream book that does a nice job of describing the importance of China’s historical perceptions of the outside world.
3- It is being euphemistically called The Pivot: www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/9307583/US-to-move-the-majority-of-its-naval-fleet-to-Asia.html.
4- A great companion book for 44 Days, to read about the history of China and its interactions with the outside world during the last 400 years is, The Search for Modern China, 3rd Edition (2012), by Jonathan Spence. It is very mainstream, but quite informative, nonetheless.
Chapter 14: July 1st Glacier
Reflecting on life in China during the Wild West 90s. Climbing the sublime July 1st Glacier at 4,300 MASL in the majestic Qilian Mountains. Plus, how I paid less than a bus load of Chinese for a tour package. Oh yeah, they were bummed!
The Jiayuguan Fort was a bit of an aside to the main attraction of coming to this part of Gansu: the July First Glacier (七一冰川= Qiyi Bingquan), about 130km southwest of Jiayuguan Town. No one I talk to seems to know about the Luhua (绿化= Green Change) train station talked about in the Lonely Planet. They keep telling me the train to Jingtieshan (镜铁山= Mirror Iron Mountain) leaves right outside my Chinese hostel door, which is situated just in front of the main Jiayuguan train station. So, I can only assume that the 08:00 departure time indicated in LP is from my next door station. After all, how many train stations can a little city like Jiayuguan have? Two, exactly. I luckily get to the station at 06:30 and as usual there are long lines to buy tickets. When five million passengers a day take interurban trains, activity around ticket windows is intense, from the moment they open till the second they close. In bigger cities they can be open 24 hours a day. Even here in puny Jiayuguan, the windows are open from 06:00 till midnight, seven days a week.
This is so much nicer than in the 90s. Back then, bus and train ticket offices kept bankers’ hours and there would maybe be two or three windows open out of ten or twenty. They’d randomly and cruelly open and close the windows for unknown lengths of time. Another favorite game of sadism was to post a sign on the glass, Will open at such and such a time, only to see that hour pass, leaving all the customers stranded in line. Then another one would suddenly open further to the side and like hyena packs, the mobs would rush over, pushing, clawing, scratching and railing the whole way. The train employees were just messing with the public and getting their sociopathic jollies by watching all the chaos and suffering. There were no lines. It was just rabid masses of elbows, knees and screaming heads crushing and stomping on each other, in a funnel shape in front of the window. Not as many people traveled back in those days. But still, in a country of a billion souls, buying a train ticket, any ticket, was fiendishly ferocious. Everywhere people had to queue up, pushing matches and fistfights between traveling families and groups were not uncommon. These were actually great moments to take advantage of the confusion and make a big push to the front of the ticket window line, proving the veracity of Charles Darwin’s natural selection and adaptation.
Those were the buckaroo days, a cowboy frontier in China, to be sure. I spent seven years of my life in that surreal, Wild West, gold rush world. I’m still nostalgic about them, in a twisted, demented way. It’s like an ex-smoker reminiscing about the pleasure of their three-pack-a-day habit, knowing it was killing them. Living here in China back then really was like having an incurable drug habit, with its claws deeply embedded into your soul. You knew it was bad for you, but you just could not get enough of it. Every day was a thrill ride, a mentally bruising video game, an exhausting body rush. You changed and became socially feral. Still warped from the psychotic perversities of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese were afflicted with PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) on a national scale, treating each other like animals, so it was adapt or die. When we finally moved to France, it was like going through extended detox. It took months to rearrange my brain and pull out of the reptilian mindset that was necessary to survive on a day-to-day basis in 90s China.
I get to the window a little bit before 07:00, thinking I have a good hour till departure and the lady says,
“The train leaves at seven, you’d better run!”
And run I do, sprinting as fast as I can and making it into the car as the massive diesel engine pushes down on the accelerator to slowly pull away. Luckily it’s a small, provincial train station. I’m scratching my head as to how the train schedule could be an hour off, when about fifteen minutes after departing, we stop at, of course, Luhua Station, which is situated in the northwest part of Jiayuguan. And from there, it does leave at 08:00. I really count myself lucky, since this is the one daily train that goes to Jingtieshan, which is the gateway to the July First Glacier. And at only ¥5.50 (€0.70/$0.90) for the beautiful climb into the Qilian mountain range, I can’t bicker about cost. Jiayuguan is 1,600 MASL and Jingtieshan sits at 2,600 MASL so over the course of the three-hour train ride, we climb one kilometer in elevation. The story of how this relatively accessible glacier got its mundane name is predictably banal. Back in the day when post-WWII China and the USSR were kissing Communist cousins, a joint Sino-Soviet geological survey team discovered the glacier on, that’s right, a July 1st. How creative! This just mentioned ticket price is the only one listed in last year’s Lonely Planet that I can find, which is less expensive today than when it was published. What with inflation and a burgeoning Chinese tourist industry, price rises are to be expected. Yet this one has dropped from ¥10 to ¥5.50, almost half the price. Of course there is no way a train can run for three hours, climbing a klick in altitude, burning up a carload of diesel and still be profitable, even at ten kuai. What this suggests is the local government is doing everything in its power to keep Jingtieshan happy or populated or both. With a subsidy this ridiculous, it will be interesting to see what the town is like.
When we get there, the train station literally sits in the shadows of the iron ore complex, as the mixture of (mainly) mine workers and tourist glacier hounds bounds off the train, into a big, open area, resembling a parking lot. Quite a few of the train passengers have on full body blue mining company uniforms, and I can see the insignia of the Jingtieshan Iron Ore Company above their front pockets. There are numerous buses and shuttles, big and small, to take all the mine workers to their respective posts, along with two big vans marked, July First Glacier Tours, only in Chinese, which gives you some idea of how few foreigners come up here. And all the taxis that are mentioned in Lonely Planet to take me up there? They do not exist. So it looks like these two vans are it. There are around thirty glacier seekers, all Chinese except yours truly, their token laowai. It all happens pretty fast. Some of the Chinese ask if I want to join them, the driver says hop on board and we are off, thirteen in total. Being the only Chinese speaking white boy on the bus, I get pumped with about a hundred questions during the incredibly scenic drive, climbing up into the massive Qilian Range, to the glacier’s base camp. Even though the questions are repetitive and predictable, it is great practice for me, as my group is made up of tourists from Guangdong, Sichuan and Shaanxi. Even though they are all speaking Mandarin, the lingua franca of China, their accents are strikingly different, which really keeps me on my toes. It’s sort of like talking with groups from the Bronx in New York, Mobile, Alabama and the barrios of Los Angeles at the same time.
The glacier’s base camp is at 3,800 meters. So, today is a 1km climb from Jiayuguan to Jingtieshan and now another 1.2km from Jingtieshan to the glacier’s base camp. The bus driver buys entry tickets to the park for everybody, including me, which I find a little unusual. As he hands me my ticket, he tells me it is a package deal, for a total of ¥240 (€30/$38), which I find kind of pricy. The ticket is ¥101 (€13/$16), not the ¥51 indicated in Lonely Planet. This is actually the student/child price. I’m the only person from whom he is asking money, which has got me scratching my head, and I find the ¥139 (€17/$22) bus fare for only a half an hour drive each way for a total of thirteen paying passengers to be way over the top. At this point, I just keep my mouth shut, because I really want to see a glacier up close. In all my travels, I’ve seen a number of them from a distance, but I’ve never hiked up to one. At base camp, three hikers buy bags of oxygen. They look like a big blue, over inflated camping pillow, with a rubber hose sticking out at one end and a stopcock to control the flow of gas, as it is being inhaled. Pretty clever idea if you ask me and at ¥30 (€3.80/$4.80) a pillow, it must be a good money maker, I’m sure. A tall tank of oxygen is not that expensive. Back in the 90s, they would have just filled it up with air and sold it as pure oxygen. Who knows today? After everybody on the bus buys snacks, drinks and oxygen pillows, we all pile back on and drive about 2km to a parking area, where it is time to start our 5km long trek, over which we will make a rapid vertical climb of 500 meters up to the glacier, perched at 4,300 MASL. While this may not sound like much, it is the equivalent of climbing a 150-story skyscraper, or one and half Empire State Buildings. And to climb one and a half Empire State Buildings at 4km above sea level? Well… We’ll see. The driver says to be back around 15:00, so that gives us almost five hours to make the 10km round trip loop and spend some time at the glacier.
It does not take long to see that out of the thirteen of us on the bus, most are not going to make it to the summit. At 3km above sea level, the air’s oxygen content (and air pressure for that matter) are already only 70% of what they are on the beach. And at 4,000 meters, it drops to 60%, so getting to the top today means breathing air that has almost one-half the oxygen compared to Beijing. One law of nature working in our favor is gravity. The further we get away from the center of the Earth, the less we weigh. At today’s ultimate goal of climbing to 4,500MASL, I will weigh 150g lighter than at sea level. Go Brown go – or to quote that great 1990 German, rap inflected dance hit by The Snap, I’ve got the power!
After a couple of klicks, there are three of us out front and one of these two men, whom I later learn is an artist from Guangdong, Ye Zhihua (we are still staying in touch), is the second oldest person in the group, after me. It feels good that the two oldest guys in our group are heading the pack. On the way up, I feel very safe filling up my water bottle with glacier melt water, since herd animals are non-existent and I see no animal spoor anywhere. I drink down a liter and fill my bottle full. Wow! What an incredibly refreshing taste. I start to pull away about half way up and make it to the summit, enjoying a few minutes of alpine solitude. Ye Zhihua shows up next. Mr. Third Place makes it, as do his son and Ye’s daughter, both preteens. She is having fun cavorting and clowning up the mountain with someone her own age, rather than with her very fit and artistic dad. Then, another younger couple makes it to the top. And that’s it. The others, including all the oxygen pillow breathers, will enjoy the pristine mountain air and view of the July 1st Glacier from further below. Many people struggle with hypoxia, so the numbers who made it all the way to the top are not surprising.
The glacier itself is as majestic and sublime as you would expect. We climb up to its tail end, called the glacier snout, where it terminates and is melting at 4,500m, but it does extend up to 5,150m in altitude, covering 5km2. It is easy to see the incredible power of erosion that glaciers have, as they flow down the face of a mountain over the millennia. There are tons and tons of rock along the bottom of the glacier, suspended in the ice, several meters deep, which have been sucked up with its century-slow, grinding movement. Unfortunately, human caused global warming is having predictably onerous effects on its wellbeing. Just in the last few years, it has receded 50m up the mountain side, its 78m thickness is starting to thin and its melt water volume has increased a breathtaking 50%. Will it be here for my grandchildren to see? Count me doubtful. With my binoculars , I can easily observe three scientists who have set out various instruments along the length of the glacier’s snout. They have a campsite all set up towards the bottom. When the sky does clear, they must have an awe inspiring night sky to do star gazing. If they don’t have a good telescope in their camp, they are really missing out. It’s time to head back. Before leaving the glacier, I quaff my water bottle and slake my thirst, refilling it before continuing my descent. I am taking this liter of crystal clear, glacier spring water as a souvenir to be savored over the next day or two. What do you call the tree line when there are no trees? These mountains are covered with meadow grass, brilliantly colored flowers in every direction and scrub brush, but nary a tree. How does plant line sound? The plant line starts when I’m only about 200m down the trail from the start of the glacier melt runoff, which rapidly turns into a raging torrent of water just a couple of hundred meters further below. There seems to be nothing much for animals to eat at this elevation, wild or domesticated, although that does not exclude any nocturnal creatures. Marmots can been seen in even the most barren of mountain ecosystems, but not one can be observed poking its squirrel-like head out from behind some rocks here.
I actually end up being the last person to get back to the bus, as I stop to take a number of photos on the way down. I briefly consider staying the night at base camp, in order to do some star gazing, but decide against it, due to the fact that I do not have the warm clothing to stay out at night and secondly, the sky continues to be full of fluffy, broken clouds. On the way back to Jingtieshan in the bus, I am chitchatting with my neighbors and just have to find out what my Chinese brethren are paying for today’s tour, compared to what I consider to be my pricey ¥240. What I learn is that they all prepaid their tours through the zhaodaisuo where they are staying in Jiayuguan. And get a load of this: They all paid ¥260 to ¥280, even more than this old waiguoren. The extra money is the commission their hotels added to the tour cost. Like a rare, great wine, I savor this amazing occurrence:
I, Jeff J. Brown, just paid less money for the same service than all my Chinese brethren. This will go down in all of China expats’ story telling annals as one of the greatest of exploits! It briefly assuages my long afflicted soul, for the thousands of times I’ve paid more for the same service or product as the locals have.
As we enter Jingtieshan, it is starting to sink in among the passengers. All the Chinese passengers are looking at me, a few are whispering in each other’s ears, I’m staring back at them and we are all thinking the same thing: This can’t be right. What the heck is going on here? Now they know how it feels… On the way back to Jingtieshan, we have a long and impressive look at the Qilian mountain range, which is located in Gansu’s narrow handle between the two bulging barbells at either end. The Qilians are just as impressive as the Rockies or the Alps, but the chain is 800km long, compared to the 1,200km long Alps and the continent long Rockies. Even though this is the desert, many of the tallest peaks are permanently covered in thick snow. It seems like every mountain range has a defining characteristic as to how the peaks are shaped and the Qilians are marked by a large number of small, craggy points on top, almost like the teeth on an irregular saw blade. As I scan the skyline, one peak juts out over the others. This must be Gansu’s tallest peak, the eponymous Qilian Peak topping out at 5,547m. This is 900m taller than the tallest peak in the Rockies and 700m taller than that of the Alps. This is not even the range’s tallest peak. There are two that top out at 5,800m, further south in Qinghai. So, while it is not the longest of mountain ranges, it does pack a spectacular altitude punch. Qilian Peak is a strange looking apex. On top is a tall, cliff-faced butte that shoots straight up. And then, like a big wedding cake, two or three progressively smaller ones are stacked, one on top of the other. And then to crown it off, a long, narrow butte is perched on the very top, shaped much like the United Nations building in New York. All in all, a most impressive mountain peak… Funny enough, it is barren, in spite of its superior height, compared to all the snow covered crags on each side. I can only assume this is due to its really unusual shape and how the generally northwest winds hit it.
Chapter 17: Qiqing
A parting shot on time warped Jingtieshan and its mysterious mining operation; visiting the Tibetan Qiqing village is another Lonely Planet letdown, but I end up exploring a Tibetan mud hut ghost town and get an invitation to visit an old woman’s Tibetan home. In other words, making something out of a nothing visit.
The next morning, before leaving for Qiqing, it’s time for a revolutionary breakfast at the Jingtieshan Mining Company People’s Mess Hall. The Inception dream within a dream continues, as I don’t think the Iron Ore Mine restaurant zombies ever leave their places: still here, still masticating the same stir fry, and still glued to the larger than life Lucille Ball boob tube. Having seen me now for the second time in twelve hours, when I sit at my Alice in Wonderland table facing them, a few of them actually respond back when I say good morning. Now that’s what I call progress. My ¥2 (€0.25/$0.30) in food vouchers gets me the typical blue collar Chinese first meal of the day: rice porridge (粥= zhou). Ugh, all the taste of chewed up notebook paper and one of my least favorite Chinese dishes. There is also an assortment of pickled cabbage, root vegetables (carrots, turnips, etc.) mixed with hydrated mushrooms that traditionally are added to the zhou to give it some desperately needed flavor (healthy and good with beer, but really, at six o’clock in the morning?), plus soya milk (sorry, blech) and hard-boiled eggs (yeah!). Other than eggs, breakfast is the least favorite meal of the day for me in China, unless I go to a good Muslim noodle shop. A big bowl of piping hot, capsicum charged, hand pulled Xinjiang, Turkic-blessed beef noodles – now that’s the way to kick start a traveler’s body and brain. Spicy noodles are also a depth charge usually guaranteed to blow out your bowels, before starting a long day on the road or trail. Knowing I’m not going to get much out of this à la carte proletarian menu selection except the eggs, I ask for three of them. The white smocked, white toqued chef hesitates, takes my two remaining meal tickets and asks for a cash supplement of two whole RMB (€0.25/$0.30). One yuan per egg… What a deal.
I leave the Jingtieshan People’s Iron Ore Mine Hotel with a sense of elation and liberation. What a bizarro and amazing time machine that place is. It is not even 07:00 yet and the purported small, yellow bus on the main road is a full two hours off. I set out to explore the town. Before even leaving the Party Bureau compound, I peek into the workers’ large recreation hall and can see that it is chockablock full of exercise equipment, weight machines, gym mats and the like, all on the inevitable descent towards complete entropy. The whole interior and its contents are covered with a thick patina of dust and soot. None of it has been touched for at least a decade, if not longer. Twilight Zone or no, the Arrow of Time is remorseless in its forward trajectory. A storage yard with huge pieces of rusted, blackened machine parts, conveyor belts, boiler tanks and the like gives the impression of a post-nuclear war set from a Transformers flick. Right next to it are several pallets of empty, green beer bottles, stacked high up against a warehouse wall. I sure wasn’t offered one last night. And right next to it, above the warehouse’s double wide, double high door is the Chinese Communist revolution’s most celebrated mantra, barely visible after decades of neglect,
毛泽东万岁! – Mao Zedong Wansui! = Long Live Mao Zedong! (literally, Mao Zedong 10,000 Years Old)
Retro-relics of the Great Leap Forward, (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), are getting harder and harder to locate in their original, unrestored state. I visually savor this faded find, like a tomb raider plundering a sarcophage of its priceless mummies, laden with gold and jewels. I go out on the main street and start to study all the various work units that dot the desolate landscape. Juxtaposed with all this degradation in each yard are large blackboards that are freshly and immaculately rendered in multicolored chalk, with lines of text and quite homey drawings of flowers, faces, symbols and the like. They are exhorting the mine workers to achieve ever greater levels of productivity, safety and quality control. People have recently spent hours decorating these big chalk boards and for whom? Where are they? The whole place looks as forlorn as the rusted out hulls of all the nineteenth and twentieth century steamships beached along the Skeleton Coast in Namibia. I continue on my way. The few mine workers I do see, none of whom are doing any labor and are just milling around on the main road, keep pointing me towards the train station downstream, so I keep wending my way in that direction. Head-high weeds choke all the gardens and plots of small trees planted along the raging river that is roaring towards Jiayuguan, more than a kilometer in elevation below us. The place really does have a post-nuclear war vibe, some industrial Planet of the Apes. Like Charleston Heston’s character seeing the top of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of a long ago deserted beach, am I going to come upon the half buried torso of Mao Zedong, or maybe Confucius, protruding from a pile of iron ore?
A really weird scene is a steel bin about 50cm deep and 2.5m square, planted alongside the main road. Inside this big hopper, which could hold several tons of rock, is a dainty little pile of ochre colored ore rock that could easily fit in a handheld dustpan. Its diminutive size looks Wonderland weird in the bottom of this gargantuan steel container. Attached to the bin is a large sign asking all the workers to leave here any ore found in their pockets and uniforms. This laughable pile of rubble makes me speculate about why they are keeping the old Jingtieshan mine open: maybe it is in reality a rare earth mineral mine and the iron ore shtick is just a cover. It doesn’t take many tons of rare earth ore to be worth hundreds of thousands of euros or dollars and China has the largest and most diversified proven reserves on the planet. And with all the dilapidated, deserted dormitories, decrepit production units and crumbling conveyor belts (I even spot an abandoned, cavernous, indoor Olympic swimming pool), there is some kind of mining going on in Jingtieshan. The occasional oversized dump truck comes roaring out of the mountains, filled to the brim with ore and they are building two new huge processing silos over the conveyor belt that leads towards the train station, to replace the three defunct ones right next to them. All these many abandoned work units are supposed to process iron ore, which goes through the multiple refining steps of crushing, milling, screening, magnetic separation, washing, desulfurization and pelleting, before it can be transformed into steel. These various processing units are obviously not working, so what are these occasional truckloads carrying as they go careening down the switchbacks? That tiny pile of rocks in the bin wouldn’t be worth a one one-hundredth of a red cent if were iron ore, but it would be worth some serious cash if it were rare earth ore. That hypothesis is looking less and less absurd, the more I see on my stroll down the river valley. The Jingtieshan Rare Earth Mining Company would surely garner the attention of China’s adversarial intelligence agencies (like, every country on the Planet Earth that has one), with their nosy, high resolution satellites. Iron Ore makes for nice, soporific camouflage.
I get to the parking lot outside the train station right before 09:00 and voilà, what do I see, but a little yellow bus waiting to take off for Qiqing (祁清= Vast Clear). It’s only ¥6 (€0.75/$0.95) to drive all the way there. To Jingtieshan’s belated credit, towards the outskirts of town, I can see a small grocery store and one small restaurant. Cases and cases of beer are stacked to the ceiling, filling the entire front window of the store. In this most berserk of socio-historical fifth dimensions, at least the zombies have their priorities straight. Mao Zedong Wansui. Or something like that… Further out of town I see the offices and administrative buildings for a brand new mine, proudly sporting the Jingtieshan Company’s corporate blue color. Undoubtedly, many of those snazzy buses at the train station drop off employees and miners here. Mine and abandon, slash and burn and move up the valley for more promising ore reserves, iron or rare earth.
I can hardly believe that I survived the historical time warp of Jingtieshan’s Twilight Zone, for what Qiqing ends up being. I have no idea what Lonely Planet is basing their recommendation on to visit here, but either they never came, or they are regurgitating decades old information. As a place to visit, Qiqing is a royal disappointment. According to the driver and my fellow passengers, the village being touted in LP was abandoned about 10 years ago and is a further 15-20km up the road. The New Qiqing, and apparently other smaller hamlets in between, were all consolidated over the last decade right here. Maybe all these once semi-nomadic Tibetan Qiqingers are better off living here. For example, as I start to explore the place, I walk by a nice medical clinic cum mini-hospital right in town. And just next door is the omnipresent and obligatory Gongan police station. And there is of course the convenience of numerous stores and restaurants. All of the homes are lined up like townhouses on one side, with all the businesses lined up opposite them. But why the abandonment and consolidation of all the valley’s hamlets to create this New Qiqing? Much of the agitation for more freedom and independence among Tibetans takes place outside modern Tibet, right here in the historical regions of the Kingdom, that are today in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan. Could it be that the Han authorities want them all close together and nearby, so they can keep an eye on them? Did something happen ten years ago in this valley that gave Baba Beijing pause for concern, panic even? I dare not ask and even if I did, I would surely get an uncomfortable, paranoid non-answer. Asking questions like this is risky, as the locals can easily assume you are a laowai spy for Baba Beijing. This valley is so remote that there could have been an uprising and it would have been easy to keep the news from spreading. Cut off the only cul-de-sac road coming in and out, shut down the mobile phone towers and lay siege to the place. It would have been easy pickings for the well trained, Myrmidon soldiers of the PLA. And then I recall we went through a road barricade control point on the way up here from Jingtieshan, manned by gun toting army types, from Han China into Tibetan country. Hmm…
This is all an intriguing aside to the voyager’s conundrum of the day. If I did not speak Chinese, my time in this New Qiqing would be, in almost anyone’s travel log, a busted day. If one is a non-Mandarin speaker, there is absolutely nothing to do or buy here. And that enchanting sister village mentioned in LP called Swan Lake? Well, it is not even in this valley. The locals tell me it’s on the other side of the Qilian Range and quite far away. So much for doing them both in one short day and in one of those phantom taxis lauded in LP. Clearly, Lonely Planet has not been up here for years. Otherwise, I can’t imagine them recommending voyagers to take the time and effort to visit.
Since I have all day before the bus returns back to the Jingtieshan train station, I am very tempted to hitchhike up to the old abandoned Qiqing, the one that is probably described in LP. But the townsfolk convince me there is nothing left to see. They all tell me it’s an abandoned ghost town. The driver is nice enough to let me keep my rolling backpack locked up for the day in the bus, so this frees me up considerably to move around and explore the surroundings. I have hours to kill and my own personal Lonely Planet to create about this modern Qiqing. While the New Qiqing is unfortunately soulless, the broad valley here and the surrounding, 5,000m snow graced Qilian Mountains are very picturesque. We are at a lofty 2,850 MASL and the sky is translucently clear, so it actually feels really hot outside. At this altitude, when the sky is blue, it is an unforgettable azure that takes on a whole new holistic dimension.
The view coming into town looked really pretty, so I hike the 500m to the edge of town. As I approach the town limits, I begin to wander through an abandoned mud and stucco hamlet. This is where a group of the Tibetan town folk lived just a decade ago. It is strange traipsing through ghost towns and they are such eerie places for a reason: they allow your imagination to run wild about how the place got in this apocalyptic situation in the first place. All kinds of questions and scenarios flood your mind and none of them can be very positive, given the state of the surroundings. The detritus of modern society is scattered everywhere. I’m starting to see a pattern here, as I pass a monstrous pile of broken, green beer bottles. Bottles of soy sauce, vinegar and other condiments are sitting in dust and cobweb encrusted window sills, with varying levels of their original contents still there. Shoes, clothes, sheep horns, animal bones, sun bleached livestock skulls, weather worn CDs and broken DVDs, empty and broken bottles of hard liquor, old medicine bottles and piles of no longer needed tender and firewood are everywhere. It is almost as if they hurriedly grabbed what they could, loaded up the pack mules and fled, leaving behind a nightmarish, post-neutron bomb scene. Most of the houses are empty or nearly so, but one is almost knee deep in moth eaten mining uniforms and another is full of piles of plain white newspaper stock, of all things. To print out Party propaganda tracts? One thing left behind has great symbolic importance: it is one of those outdoor public announcement speakers that the local Communist Party likes to use to blare out propaganda before and after work, like what I heard in Jingtieshan last night. Are they still getting their daily dose in the new village? The more I explore, the more I get the feeling that the Tibetan uprising hypothesis is credible. This mud hamlet was abandoned in a hurry. Most of the roofs are falling in, but a few look like they were installed more recently, being constructed of modern tile. The only sound is my feet crunching over what will be fossil remains unearthed by paleontologists, a million years from now. I start to ask myself,
“What was the last person walking out of here thinking or saying to themselves, as they peered over their shoulder?”
When I walk through a backyard and come around the corner into an obviously occupied front courtyard, in the confines of a high outer wall. Yikes, I’m trespassing. Everything about the place oozes Tibetan culture, starting with a magnificent, quilted wind curtain hanging over the front door, embroidered with a large, multicolored, round mandala on its face. I freeze for a few minutes, not sure what to do, but now I know there are holdouts, resisters, the last of the last, the diehards. Or, is this family the pariahs, the unwanted? I am so tempted to knock on the door, but what the heck would I say? Pizza delivery? It just does not feel right. A big ol’ white boy pounding on their door might scare the bejeezuz out them and elicit an unwanted reaction. For all I know, they could sic a Baskerville beast of a Tibetan mastiff on me. I opt for the traveler’s MASD: mutually assured social discretion and tiptoe out the back way, from whence I entered. I continue on, come to the end of the village and turn back up a tall-tree lined dirt road that leads back to the new town. I notice three parked cars and a couple of small motorbikes outside what are probably an equal number of still lived in houses. So, it is not just the town loon who is holding out, there are several hangers on. Why are they still here? Are these the riffraff no one wants for neighbors? Are these the agitators the Communist Party wants to ostracize? Surely a house, any abode in town, would be better than this phantom existence. Then again, the New Qiqing has all the charm of a Plasticine Potemkin façade, so maybe we can chalk it up to well-grounded nostalgia and good old fashioned stubbornness.
By this time, I am being accompanied by some ground foraging hens and we are all instinctively seeking shaded ground, under the towering trees, away from the blistering sunlight. I spot a young woman with a child, and they are helping a very old, crumpled up woman, slowly working her way across the deserted road. Her two female companions are serving as human crutches. The young woman is carrying the old lady’s two walking canes in her free hand, as she leans in to keep her from falling down. Curious, I catch up, say hello and ask if they are three generations of ladies: grandmother, daughter and granddaughter. No, no, no, she is just our neighbor and we are helping her back home after a house visit. We sit down together in the shade outside of what must be the old woman’s house. The mother relents and lets me take a picture of her five year old daughter, named Cairen Zhuoma (才人卓玛). The vast majority of Han people’s names are three characters long, with some being just two. But like this little girl, many Tibetan names contain four. Also, Zhuoma is a very common Tibetan name and means, Outstanding Agate, Cairen means Talented Person. Agate is an important gemstone in Tibetan culture, as it is used to make prayer beads and rosaries. The beads can be beautifully etched and carved and are called dzi in Tibetan, which means clarity or splendor. In traditional Tibetan medicine, agate also imparts important healing properties, as it can calm a mind cluttered with unnecessary claptrap that is vain or trivial. Thus, an agate rosary is a twofer: the dzi lend medicinal powers and the act of chanting mantras offers a suffering soul the soothing sagacity of Buddha. I will see several Tibetan agate rosaries being carried by the faithful, before I leave the Plateau during 44 Days.
I start to talk to the wizened and weathered old woman and amazingly, she lets me take her photo. The afternoon is a hot one, and at almost 3km above sea level, the Sun is pitiless. I recall this as I study the old woman’s textured, bronze face, with its infinite layers of wrinkles and canyon-like creases. A poster child for sunscreen use? I don’t think so. I offer to the mother to send the photos to her mobile phone, which she excitedly accepts. However I later learn that most people in this part of China only have 1G phones and can send messages, but with no attachments. In any case, it is a nice thought. Finally rested from the arduous trek across the dirt road, the old lady suddenly perks up and invites me into her home for a cup of water. Wow! What an honor, to be invited by Tibetans in their home. Of course I accept! Her name is Lao Pu (老蒲= Old Mrs. Pu); I never learn her first name), she won’t give me her exact age and actually does not even seem certain of it, but tells me she is over eighty. She looks like she could be a hundred. Lao Pu has five children and nine grandchildren. She likes her cigarettes and smokes a couple while I am here. But it looks to me like she is just puffing and not inhaling. She understands my Mandarin very well, but hers is heavy going and the mother, who I now know to be Mrs. Wang, helps decipher her answers. Lao Pu’s next-door neighbor, a woman of about seventy, joins us and I share my glass of boiled water with them, as we curiously exchange our stories. They are giving me the standard twenty questions and I am happily dishing them back. Each round of questions and answers allows us to share our lives. Lao Pu is a widow and has lived in this old mud hamlet every day of her life. She has never traveled further than Lanzhou, Gansu’s capital. She got no formal education and is very proud that her children and grandchildren have more opportunities than she could ever dream of. She’s been through a lot in life and it shows on her shamanic face. It is easy to hear in the tone of her voice that she is proud to be a survivor, to have made it through so much for so long.
Lao Pu’s house is a modest affair. It is composed of only two rooms, with the small living room where we are sitting and a bedroom in the back, with a traditional, huge and almost waist high bed that can sleep four or more. The ceilings are quite low. I suspect this is to keep as much heat as possible during the long subzero winter months, as close to body level as possible. She has electricity and graciously lets me charge up my Galaxy Tab while we chat. The kitchen is tiny – no bigger than a closet sized room and just big enough to house a small two burner, gas bottle stove. It is situated between where we are and the bedroom in the back and comprises one wall of the short hallway connecting the two. The kitchen door is a sepia colored curtain impregnated with decades of cooking oil and steam. I can just make out the white countertop gas stove, but cannot see if there is a sink with a spigot or not. I doubt it. That leaves no room for a toilet, so her bathroom is surely an outhouse in the back, which I saw a few of during my amblings through the ghost town. Lao Pu’s heat is supplied by a low level potbellied stove that is installed between us. She uses a small electric heater in the bedroom to stave off frostbite. At this altitude, the tree cover is so sparse; she must use coal for fuel, although I did see quite a few piles and stacks of small caliber wood around the abandoned houses. I just don’t see enough forest at this altitude to support wood as a form of heating. Can you imagine the winter temperatures up here? There are a couple of uncovered, cooked dishes on top of the stove and in this summer heat, they both look like they are in desperate need of a refrigerator, which she does not have. My gut is a worldwide tested catalytic converter, but even for me, I’d think twice before eating from them, if they were offered. Fortunately, this does not happen.
As I am chatting with Lao Pu, her neighbor, Momma Mrs. Geng and young Cairen Zhuoma, I finally get to the question of why they are still here in this nearly abandoned old mud village. Mrs. Geng confirms there are still four families living here and talks about her family situation. Her husband is a truck driver and she is at home to take care of Zhuoma, who will be going to first grade next year. The abandoned village school is as moribund as the rest of this mud hamlet, so, why don’t they have a new house? Is it a lack of money, or are they staying put to care for Lao Pu? She goes on to explain that in order to move, there needs to be a house available for them, and they are all taken, none are left for them. After several glasses of boiled water and more chitchat about the weather and climate here, it’s time to move on. I sincerely thank Lao Pu and Mrs. Geng for their humble, Spartan hospitality. I feel truly honored to be invited into their Tibetan home and count myself fortunate for the eye opening experience.
Later in the day, I show the photos of my Tibetan friends to a family who owns a restaurant in town, where I have a late lunch. They immediately recognize all of them by name. They explain that all of Lao Pu’s children moved away and she doesn’t have the support to move. Given her age and status as a widow, I can see her not wanting to move from where she has lived all her life. But I never get a clear answer from anybody about Mrs. Geng’s situation and my confusion is further fueled when I see two new houses on the main street (the only street in fact) that have started construction, and for now are just roofless, cinderblock walls. Are these their homes? All the other town’s houses are finished and occupied. This would suggest that the problem might be a question of having enough money, and these restaurant owners are not going to divulge something that personal about Geng and Pu. Before leaving, I tell the restaurant owner I feel bad not living up to my promise to send Mrs. Geng the photos I took. He has a 3G phone, so I send him the pictures I took with Lao Pu’s gang and he promises me he will get them sent to them.
I leave New Qiqing with more questions than answers to some juicy socio-political meanderings about what happened in this valley a decade ago and where the holdouts in the nearby mud hamlet fit into the picture. Being able to visit with four Tibetan ladies across three generations, in their humble abode, made for a very gratifying cultural experience and saved what would otherwise have been an extremely lackluster day. The little yellow bus cranks up its engine. It’s time to head back to Jiayuguan and hopefully catch an overnight train back to Lanzhou, with a quick bus connection to Xiahe and its sublime Labrang Temples. And most incredibly, that is exactly what happens, just like clockwork. Well synchronized, on-time connections are now being almost taken for granted on this journey, and were totally unimaginable when living here in the nineties. Back then, I’d probably still be trying to get from Beijing to Ningxia, the first leg of my trip. And that is no exaggeration. Another sign that China is coming of age: while standing in line to buy my train ticket from Jingtieshan to Jiayuguan, the man queuing ahead of me asks me my nationality and a couple of other questions, and then loudly and gaily insists on buying my train ticket, making sure all the people standing in line behind me take notice. He will not take no for an answer and is clearly chuffed with himself. I know it only costs ¥5.50 (€0.70/$0.85), but this kind of spontaneous generosity would have been unthinkable in the nineties, and it happens again and again during the voyage, these small tokens of friendship and cooperation. Ah yes, friendship and cooperation, that takes me back. This frequently flagellated, hopelessly hollow, ganbei-banquet-bandied slogan from the 90s is finally starting to bear fruit.1 It only took a generation.
1- Ganbei = 干杯, is how you say cheers when making a drinking toast and it literally means, dry glass, or bottoms up, to quote David Lee Roth and Van Halen.
Chapter 22: Langmusi – Next Day
Langmusi hits the jackpot again with another world class hike, deep into the Tibetan wilds and the source of the magical White Dragon River – oh yeah, I lose both big toenails in the process.
Yesterday’s world class hike was in the spectacular Great Namo Gorge, resplendent with towering cliff buttes and livestock clinging to verdant pastoral slopes, which arch to the tops of spruce and pine covered mountains. These animals are shepherded by a vermillion tuniqued Tibetan monk, who can cast his gaze, overlooking meadow flowers in every direction and with colors to make a rainbow blush. Finally, this sublime, Renoir landscape painting is graced by a sacred, babbling mountain brook at 3.5km above sea level. So, who would think today’s trek could rival it? Nahhhh, just can’t happen, or so I thought… Upon awaking, Rafal, Marta and I discuss our options. All we can see out our hostel window is it is still raining more often than not. But the three of us are determined to get our hikes underway, regardless. The main street below looks like a prehistoric flood scene, as monks and civilians trudge and labor in the thick muck that is serving as Langmusi’s thoroughfare. Time to get out see what we can do, so we say our goodbyes and take off in different directions on the main street. To test out my sandals, I decide to go check out some really intriguing revolutionary dazibao that are plastered on a big factory wall on the outskirts of town, and which caught my eye when our bus rolled into town yesterday. Dazibao (大字报= big word report) are the ubiquitous banners and sayings hanging and painted everywhere in China as public service announcements, and to exhort the masses to hew to whatever Baba Beijing is fretting over at the time.1 On this factory wall, it says in eight huge white characters on a Tibetan vermillion colored background,
“Lacking oxygen does not mean lacking vitality – we are not afraid of hardship, we just bear our suffering.”
Wow, what a great dazibao. Definitely not an admonition you would find in New York or Paris. It is easy to see that this particular call to arms is just one of several permutations over the years. Older, faded out and painted over characters can be seen on the same wall, like some sociopolitical palimpsest. This is often true about dazibao wherever traveling in China. New concerns, new campaigns, new dazibao. Testing out my footwear in these conditions is a smart idea. The factory is only a half a kilometer away. But the slog through the mostly ankle deep main street proves to be a veritable disaster. By the time I get back to the hostel, my sandals are each embalmed in about 1kg of muck wrapped around my feet. It takes me quite some time to extricate my earth-leaden sandals from my feet, pry and scrape off the epoxy-like mud from all of the above, and then laboriously soak and scrub my sandals to grant them their freedom. I don’t know how they are going to dry out. The way it keeps raining, I will be leaving Langmusi tomorrow wearing cold damp footwear. More bad news about my saunter through the sludge: where the straps on my sandals lay across my skin, there are bloody scratches and abrasions. Not the best condition for my feet to start out today’s trek.
Time to buy some sailor’s rubber boots like I saw that two legged mountain goat of a Tibetan wearing last night. I run into Rafal and Marta coming down the street, of course, sporting brand new, knee high rubber boots, sloshing through the mountains of muck with impunity. I gawk at their miraculous purchase: I’ll take a pair of those in any style or color, thank you. As they take off on the Great Namo Gorge trek that I took yesterday, they point me the right direction. I tippy toe, jump and pirouette as gracefully as I can from least muddy spot to least mucky hole in my soaking wet, clean sandals. The last thing I want to do is scrub and scrape them again. Once inside the general store, the next big hurdle is hoping I can find some rubber boots that will fit me. I slip on the pair of gym socks I packed for the trip and ask to try on the biggest pair they have, size 44. Amazingly, even with my canoe wide feet, I can just get them on. It is a snug fit and I count myself lucky. Time to attack the Langmusi hike on the Gansu side.
Not to be outdone by their contemporaries on the Sichuan side of the White Dragon River, the Gansu side of town also has a sister monastery, called the Serti Gompa. Smaller and 335 years younger than the built-in-1413 Kerti Gompa on the Sichuan side, it is sparkling white and covered in gold leaf that glistens against the gun metal gray, high altitude sky. Lots of Tibetan tourists are walking around with fronds of fresh, evergreen cedar branches, to burn as offerings in small, stupa shaped ovens that are typically found outside Tibetan temples. When they toss a bundle of cedar leaves in one, the whole area smells incredibly delicious. I go into the main Serti Gompa Temple. The morning sermon and catechism are in full swing. The temple could easily sit a thousand, but only about a hundred monks are being beseeched and berated to follow the spiritual path. Like in other temples, the head priest seems to amplify his physical presence with suitable body armor. Put them on a steed, hand them a slashing saber and they could pass for Samurai warriors. Or maybe a silver screen Obi Wan Kenobi? I am convinced that Buddhist head priests, who almost always sport polished, clean shaven heads, must use yak butter to bring their craniums to a golden sheen. Depending on your point of view, their glowing bald heads in the faint halo of the yak butter candles that barely illuminate Buddhist temples, give them either a saintly or demonic mien. This head priest is festooned with broad, golden yellow sashes and a front bodice that would make a Sioux chief grin with envy. Using the girth of his outsized and regally embroidered vermillion tunic to maximum effect, he waves his hands with authority at each turn of his erect body. He paces up and down the temple’s central passageway, arms mostly held out to the sides of his body, as if making a pronouncement, or pleading in gentle supplication. Like all good preachers, this priest has a wonderful, lilting cadence to his delivery, in steady, hypnotic and metronomic stanzas. Changing from the pleadings of reason to the earnest exhortations of portending doom, there is only one path to righteousness, and the consequences of not doing so are dire indeed. Some of his younger flock seem unfazed by the mystical and metaphysical supplications of the moment, but he keeps his lambs on their toes by regularly asking them to respond to his calls with the appropriate chanted response. The assistant priest, seated lotus style on his red upholstered cubic dais, helps the chanters keep time by rhythmically clapping a hand sized cymbal. Some of the monks’ voices are astonishing in their range and power, from bottom of the gut bass to sonorous tenor. Even though these chants come across as chaotic, it is much too hypnotic to be that haphazard. Most of the adherents are in rapt, respectful attention, but like in every congregation, there is a fair number who are acting out their eastern interpretation of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Seated together in clots of two to six, they continue their outdoor horse play, wrestling, jousting, locking arms, surreptitiously sending text messages, gabbing and joking sotto voce. They try to maximize their advantage by strategically sitting behind the many multicolored, drape covered support columns, or stationing themselves at oblique angles to the head priest’s peripheral vision. Showing their practical knowledge of using angles and columns for maximum shenanigans, I’m sure they would all pass a planar geometry exam with flying colors.
Time to move on. I have to ask four or five different people before I am confident that I’m on the right path: to trek up in the mountains to the source of this very same said White Dragon River. Rafal and Marta were somewhat nonplussed about their trek here yesterday, so I have no idea what to expect. No one can tell me with any precision how far it is up there, nor how high is the source’s elevation. I guess I will just have to find out for myself. As I am leaving town I walk past a couple of households that have slaughtered a yak this morning along the banks of the White Dragon River. They are well advanced in the process, with it already being skinned and two quarters sectioned off. It is really a bizarre contrast, seeing all this red and white spread out over the green summer grass. It stops raining and the first two klicks lull me into a sense of entitlement, as it is flat and paved with concrete. As the pavement peters out, there is a tent with a work site to repair the road, or possibly extend the pavement. A Tibetan man comes out and excitedly waves me to come his way. I’m all smiles with my new boots, as they sink into ankle deep ooze, while I make my way towards his tent. Bang Kao (帮考) could pass for a full blooded Native American or a Roma from the hinterlands of Southeastern Europe. He looks incredibly exotic. He is very excited to tell me about his buddy who has a restaurant about five kilometers up the road, called the Gongquhu (贡去乎). To be sure, I ask him to write it down in Chinese in my notebook, along with his name and his friend’s name. Bang Kao is almost bursting with overjoyed excitement, saying to me,
“Just tell him I sent you and he’ll set you right up.”
Jeez Louise, this guy could be a successful nightclub punt in New York City. But, who knows? Having a name to drop never hurts and all I can do is hope that this restaurant up in the mountains is surely overlooking the little babbling brook that starts the White Dragon River on its great journey to the lowlands and beyond. My sense of languor is short lived, as after a couple more bends, the pitch of the road begins to track upwards and I am frequently slipping and sliding, as I try to get a grip in the slimy mud. For cheapo rubber boots, they actually have a pretty good traction, especially given the difficult conditions. I round another bend and I cannot believe my eyes. Awesome, a flock of about a dozen vultures is having a carrion banquet about 50 meters ahead. For many Tibetans, these huge winged beasts are the conveyors of souls to the afterlife. Priests will take the cadaver of the faithful to designated funeral areas in the mountains, dismember the corpse, crack open the skull and expose all the intestines. The body is then left for these birds to eat the brain, organs and entrails, and then over the ensuing days, pick the skeleton clean, only to leave the bones laying there to return to the Earth in the decades to come. While most non Tibetans are viscerally ill at ease vis-à-vis this burial method, no one can argue about its sublime symbolism: a faithful loved one’s bodily remains are transported thousands of meters above, toward the diaphanous, azure heavens, where they are scattered over the peaks and valleys of sky-scraping Greater Tibet, the Land of Snow, the Top of the World. The soul moves onto a new life, a new creation is born on the face of the Earth, while the body returns back to the planet’s dust. The cycle of life is completed one more time, with a new day, a new beginning. My Rolls Royce of binoculars are paying off like a rigged slot machine. I spend some time observing them and slowly creeping step by step, get a little closer. The vultures are encircling their fetid feast, busily at work. Having gotten their momentary fill, two or three of them individually take flight, only to land a hundred or so meters away across the road, overlooking the stink fest. They sit alone to digest their meal and keep a leery eye on my presence. The remaining gourmands are savagely tearing at whatever carcass constitutes their pleasure. Like the needles of a high speed industrial sewing machine, their bald, corrugated heads bob up and down, as their powerful beaks try to pick and pull whatever bodily remains lay at their clawed feet. It is time to break up this merry band of soul transporters, as their feast is between me and the headwaters of the White Dragon River. I slowly walk towards the glutting flock and they fly off one by one, until the last two or three reluctantly depart in unison. They act very put out by the interruption. I try to take pictures of them as they make their getaway; their wingspan is all of two meters, maybe more. I walk down to their harvest table to see what is whetting their appetite and the strong stench of dead fish slaps me in the face. I see the blackened remains of a sheep, with really only the skeleton and skin remaining. It sure looks like thin pickings for all the frenetic activity they were devoting just now. With this meager offering, I’d say these hungry birds could use a soul transporting Tibetan funeral about right now. I think back at what might be the leftover remains of the slaughtered yak in Langmusi as an alternative. But that Tibetan family will efficiently use everything in that animal’s body down to the muzzle.
The climb up into the mountains is incessant. The nearly 100% humidity in the air is robbing it of its already attenuated oxygen levels and I really have to concentrate on deep breathing to keep from getting gassed. I have no idea how far or how high I have to hike today, so I need to be careful. Huge chunks of topsoil, some the size of boulders, dot the rocky shoals along the White Dragon, broken off from the banks higher up from all the rain we’ve had. These stranded green and black islands of valuable farmland will continue their journey downstream, slowly broken down to dust with each succeeding cloudburst. The soil here in the valley is ebony dark and must be very rich. I can see a building off in the distance and assume it must be Bang Kao’s famous mountain restaurant. Alright, a warm meal, maybe some tasty Tibetan barbecue, a roof over my head and some hot tea to warm my tired, oxygen starved muscles and brain. But Bang Kao’s restaurant is a mountain mirage. This once glorious farmhouse is completely dilapidated and falling apart. It hasn’t been occupied for years. When was the last time Bang Kao ventured up here?
I see a Tibetan shepherd working around his tent and having nothing to lose at this point, show him the names Bang Kao wrote in my notebook and ask him what he thinks. He does not recognize any of the names, but tells me if I’m hungry, I am welcome to eat in his tent. Just to make sure there are no hard feelings, I ask him how much it will cost. He tells me I can pay whatever I like. I try to get him to give me a price, but I get the same reply. Well, OK… The tent is about five meters square and tall enough to stand in along the central ridge. This Tibetan shepherd’s name is Hong Bei (红北= Red North) and his wife is busy doing her housekeeping, or tent keeping, as it were. She has a big, transparent glass mug of tea on the floor and it is full of berries, flowers and herbs. She also has a clear jar, with large rock sugar crystals in it. Before I leave, she will have emptied it out, chewing and sucking on the entire contents. Are Tibetans diabetes resistant, or what? The tent is neat and orderly, like any house would be, and like an efficiency apartment, it’s all kind of together in one room. Hong Bei and I sit on their ground level mattress/bed. Patriarchal roles are clearly set out: the woman of the house does all the work here and the men watch. Across from our bed cum sofa is the tender box full of dried out yak manure, which she continually adds to the low, flat, potbellied stove in the center of the tent. A flue pipe carries the smoke outside through the top of the tent. Given the number of times she replenishes the stove, manure has a very low caloric content compared to even a soft wood like pine. Now I can see why Tibetans have to make large mounds of the stuff as fire fuel to make it through the winter. The other half of the tent is given over to food storage and preparation. Hong Bei’s wife can only speak Tibetan, but he speaks good Mandarin. He asks if I like mian (面) and taking this as noodles, or possibly bread; it sounds good to me. My food order makes it the three meters across the tent and the missus sets to work. She pulls out a handleless teacup and fills it about half full of yak butter, which she stores in a larder. Using her index finger and keeping it shaped like a fish hook, she pumps her digit up and down rapidly until the contents are nice and soft. She even stops long enough to show me the contents. I smile encouragingly, having no idea what finished product I will be served. In the meantime, Hong Bei and I chat. He is 39 years old and they have two children who are going to a trade school college in Hezuo, Gansu, halfway from here to Xiahe. Their children are 20 and 21 years of age, so Hong Bei and his wife were probably no older than 17 or 18 when they got married. Like most of the many nomad tents I see on the Tibetan Plateau, they have a small cylinder motorcycle to get into town and to even use to herd their animals across the mountainsides, as a mechanized substitute for a horse. They also have a half meter square solar panel to charge a tractor battery for a light bulb at night and to play a radio for news and entertainment, but no TV. They have a tent neighbor right next door, with a woman busily buzzing around it. She has the identical setup: tent, motorbike and solar panel. Hong Bei tells me he and his wife have forty head of yak up on the slopes. Since the husband next door is absent, I suspect they combine forces and graze and paddock their herds together. Given their tents’ proximity, they are probably related. I have a lot of questions I’d like to ask, but don’t know how far to push it, and I sure don’t want to offend them. I am gracious for their hospitality. Remembering the bloody shank of yak hoof I found yesterday in the Great Namo Gorge, I ask a tantalizing question,
“Are there wolves out there?”
“Oh, yes, for sure.”
I’m skeptical, given that everywhere I go, the fauna and fowl are pretty much expunged from the face of Chinese soil. Maybe he is talking about feral dogs, which are a serious problem wherever livestock are grazed. However, I later learn there is in fact a Tibetan wolf, which looks like the gray European wolf, but has shorter legs. This may explain the chewed off yak shank I found, after all. Anyway, he confirms they bring their herd into a paddock every night, for safe keeping. The missus (I decide to err on the side of propriety and not ask her name) now pours what looks like a real dark flour into the softened yak butter. Hong Bei confirms that it is from qingke, or Alpine barley, which is the national grain of Tibet, given that no other common cereal will grow at this altitude (corn, sorghum, wheat or rice). With the dark barley flour now added to the softened yak butter, she continues to gouge her index finger in the tea cup like a dough hook on a bread machine. After these two ingredients are mixed together, she next adds an equal quantity of granulated sugar and keeps furiously manipulating the concoction with her jabbing finger. A few more minutes of this kneading and voilà, it’s ready. The mixture looks like dark, caramel colored pizza dough, but thicker and heavier. She ceremoniously hands me my bowl of mian, while Hong Bei pours me a tall glass of boiling water. He tells me this dish is called suiyou chamian.2 You (油) means fat or oil and mian means all things grain and noodles, so good enough for me. As I dig out a small dob of the stuff and pop it into my mouth. I can see why Hong Bei’s counsel to eat this Tibetan bread with hot water is such good advice: without it, it’s almost impossible to eat. It is so rich, so heavy and so dense that the hot water helps liquefy it just enough to get it down my gullet. Otherwise, the blob would probably just lodge in my throat. My gosh, is it filling. After only finishing half of it, I feel like I just had third helpings at a Thanksgiving dinner. Amazing stuff. And all it is, is about one-third each yak butter, barley flour and sugar. Meanwhile, the missus has been getting out some yak yoghurt and again, she adds a healthy dose of sugar. It only amounts to about a half a cup, but I feel so distended that I can only finish about half of it too. And for dessert? Voilà Monsieur, half of a fresh apple. I ask if I can take pictures and Hong Bei generously accepts. I ask if his wife can take our picture together and she happily agrees. And then most surprisingly, Hong Bei suggests that he take a picture with his wife and me. They switch places and she sits near me and we get a good photo. The pictures are very nice and I suggest sending him copies when I return to Beijing. I ask him to write his address in my notebook and he does one better. He goes to a drawer by the bed and pulls out a thick envelope that was mailed to him. He is expecting me to copy it down. I can read Chinese quite adequately and easily write it on a computer or cell phone by transcribing pinyin to Chinese, but handwriting it? I labor and gnash my teeth doing it. I then get the great idea to just take a picture of the envelope. Presto. Before leaving, the missus puts a huge, institutional sized cooking pot on top of the potbellied stove, into which she ladles clabbered yak milk from a large, 25 liter plastic jerry can. She fills it right to the brim and stokes the fire with a few more chunks of yak manure. I can guess she is going to boil down this lumpy dairy stew to make some kind of cheese, or maybe the yoghurt I just ate.
It is time to relaunch my hike to the magical source of the White Dragon River. I give Hong Bei ten yuan for my meal with reassurances that I will send the photos next month (I do, but they get returned). They both seem very pleased with my visit and I am too. This lunch, meeting and talking to Hong Bei and watching his wife’s life in the tent is a rewarding experience in itself and is giving me a rare opportunity to get a taste of nomadic Tibetan culture and ways. Hong Bei points up at the rapid incline, as the mudslide for a road quickly disappears over the rise. He tells me it is only two klicks to the source and an easy climb up. Well, that shouldn’t be too hard, should it? Wrong on all counts. But I am blissfully ignorant of all that for now. Across the road is a nice modern tent with about ten Chinese tourists in a circle eating lunch, and I’m sure it’s different to what I just ate. They were brought up in a small bus and are going to ride horses up to the river source. Chinese City Slickers. I wonder which ones are playing the parts of Billy Crystal and Jack Palance?
Up to now, the rain has been intermittent and drizzly, but now it is starting to come down pretty fiercely. At the same time, the pitch of the road is becoming really precipitous and all the slipping and sliding is making my ascent that much more inefficient and laborious. From here on out, I am having to stop every so often and take hyper-breaths to keep my brain and muscles oxygenated. My rubber boots are also starting to show their newness. My feet are chafing at their barely adequate size and my big toenails are really painful as they push and slam against the inside of the shoes. After twenty more minutes up the steep slope, I have to put on my rain poncho. I am already pretty wet and have been avoiding putting it on, since I know I will sweat like a galley slave under it, with all the calories I’m burning every step of the way. I am so gassed that when I re-depart, I get about a kilometer further up the mountain, when I suddenly realize I left my Zeiss binoculars back on the rock where I put on my poncho. Holy mackerel. How negligent can I get? Bought in 1988, been to tens of countries, seen countless galaxies, globular and open clusters, nebulae and planets; fish, fowl, fauna, flora and fungi of every hue and shape; peoples, cultures, the surface of the Earth in all its magnificence, a $4,000 replacement cost for the Made in (West) Germany version; those binoculars that I swore the only way I could justify buying them ($1,000 in 1988) was to never lose them – and I just left them on a roadside rock in the rain for any passerby to help themselves to? Jeez Louise! Adrenaline shoots through my veins like a turbocharged drug. I try to run, but the road is as slippery as a trough full of entrails and after 300m, I can only walk as fast as my pituitary gland’s hormones will push my brain and body. Also the pounding of my big toenails is really starting to come to full force, and I realize it is ten times worse going downhill. I have got to get there before the Chinese Billy Crystal and Jack Palance beat me to them. Gosh, I feel like such a fool. But that’s what happens at high altitude and getting gassed: hypoxia is like being drunk or stoned and you don’t even realize it is happening. What an incredible blessing, all the rain has made this road virtually unusable. A different day, and no telling how many minibuses full of tourists would have driven by that binocular-laden rock by now. Bend after bend and the rain is making the whole ordeal more and more ominous. I am trying to remember landmarks, but my adrenaline stressed, oxygen starved brain is blowing fuses left and right. Finally, finally, a couple of hundred meters up ahead, I can see an unnatural black shape on top of a big sandstone rock. Hallelujah. Made it. Saved. Almost a fool no more. Whew. Now, let’s get to the top of that sacred mountain and the White Dragon source. The ascent is relentless and I just added two kilometers to my itinerary, to boot. Bravo, Jeff, way to go…
There are nomads’ tents and large herds of yak, sheep and goats, with some cattle and horses, dotting the mountainside across the expansive river valley. Many hundreds of animals are seen along the way. I have only spotted one sheep dog, it was far away from the flocks and I wonder how they protect their animals at night, from feral dogs, wolves, or whatever. Like Hong Bei, I can only assume they bring them in every night to be penned up, but no fence is going to stop canines, so what do they do, take turns keeping all night vigils? As I am climbing, I get a great view of a camp slightly below my level across the valley and see people outside. Way too far for the naked eye, I take back out my Zeiss, giving them a ceremonial kiss and caress for my carelessness. There are plumes of smoke billowing out of two of the five big tents, so I can just picture Hong Bei’s tent interior to know what’s inside. A couple of smaller tents serve some other purpose. Two women are simultaneously milking yaks, with their seated, hunched backs turned toward me. Both are donning huge pink head dresses, piled up high. One is wearing a full length grey tunic and the other one’s is brown. Like everywhere in the world, laundry is hanging out – here on the tent wires. With this weather, it is going to take a while for it to all dry. A too-curious ewe wanders close to the camp and Mrs. Grey Milkmaid wearily unfolds her doubled over body, leaving her stool next to her cud chewing yak. She picks up a stone, lumbers towards the anxious ewe and heaves the rock towards the miscreant. She then waves her arms over her head as if saying,
“Get on back out there, eat mountain grass, fatten up for the winter and get ready for the breeding season like you are supposed to.”
The ewe nobly complies. Mrs. Grey Milkmaid goes back, folds herself up under her milk laden yak and gets back to pulling and squirting. Another kilometer up the demonic, greasy-slick ascent and I see a shepherd riding by on his horse. It is incredible how much Tibetans look like Native Americans, and I ponder what is called the Tibet-Pueblo Connection – the idea that ancient Tibetans made the great migration of humanity across the Bering Straits over the last several tens of thousands years.3 Other than the surroundings, I could be in Comanche Country right now. The Tibetan is riding at a trot, rocking forward and back in his saddle, oblivious to the precipitation. Bare chested in all his magnificence, he is singing a chant to the heavens and it just augments his Indian allure. We wave and smile at each other, the briefest of connections between the past and the present. How much longer can Tibetan nomads sustain this way of life into the future, as China continues to inexorably advance into the 21st century?
A further 1km of slipping and sliding two steps forward and one back and still no sign of any river source, which shoots down Hong Bei’s sunny estimation. Little do I know that I haven’t even arrived at the really challenging part of the day’s trek yet. My real adventure has not even begun. Out of the mist a man with a heavy grain sack over his shoulders signals to me. His long, shaggy hair sprouting from under his hat and his sparse, very long, stringy salt and pepper beard remind me of the woodcut old men on the front of Jethro Tull’s Stand Up album. He looks almost elfin. Without saying a word, he motions towards my back and volunteers to pull my rain poncho over my backpack, which I cannot do by myself. We smile from ear to ear at each other, I thank my Tibetan gnome warmly and extend my hand, which he shakes brotherly by our thumbs (I have noticed when I do shake hands around here, they like to do so in hooked thumb fashion). We hardly say a word to each other, but it is a very touching moment, the two of us out here in the harsh, rainy conditions of the White Dragon Mountains, him proffering his help and us recognizing each other.
The road, as it were, finally ends and I begin to walk along and back and forth across the river, making my way ever upward. The cloud line is not far above my head and with the increasing altitude, the temperature is starting to drop rapidly. There is another klick of this slow going river walk, but at least it is mostly rocks and rushing water, and not like the wall of mud below. There are some really treacherous stretches, where the narrow trail is cut into the mountainside and many meters above the river bed. With the rain, it is as scary as all get out, because one slip and it would be the hospital or the morgue. I cling like crazy to the bushes and grass on the mountain face, sometimes inching forward one small step at a time, to make sure I don’t go tumbling down below on my left. The White Dragon River begins to dig into the soil now. It is no longer on a rocky bed, but carving a huge, deep gash in the fertile, black dirt. I look up to the horizon and about 2km away, I can see what looks like a mountain pass. Dime to a dollar that’s where the river source is. But at this point, 2,000 meters might as well be twenty thousand. I am now pushing myself on raw willpower and whatever adrenaline my body can muster. I am cold, drenched wet with sweat and fatigued down to my bone marrow. Not a good combination.
I am now walking up a huge expanse of mountain meadow. But in several areas it is just as dangerous as the riverbed portion I just survived, if not even more treacherous. There are tens of narrow, slick cattle trails all pointing to the pass above, but sections are quite steep, pitched towards the river gash to the left. Trip and fall here and it is going to be a long, neck breaking tumble down the steep incline, before crashing into what is now a very deep scar of a ravine for a river. The rain is making this hike a frighteningly memorable one. I am dripping wet from all the sweat and it is only because of my rain poncho that I’m not freezing to death. It’s getting so cold and I’m getting shiverish from my soaking wet shirt, that I wrap my Saudi shamagh around my head, Palestinian fashion, leaving only my eyes exposed. The cloud line is breaking over the pass and is now just above my head. A handful of Tibetan nomad tents are set up right below the pass. I am walking through a herd of yaks peacefully grazing on the lush, rain soaked wild pasture. They reluctantly disburse if I get too close to them. I look back and see the City Slickers on their horses, gaining on me coming up the trail, which just motivates and pushes me forward in exhaustion: they will not beat me to the source. About 500m from the top, the river ravine starts to branch out into a whole series of smaller and smaller gullies. I have to move left and right to weave through them to keep pushing upwards. The pasture surface is as soft and soggy as a bog. I am so utterly spent, so cold, so wet, in so much in pain with my big toes, which by now are throbbing miserably, that several times I come to one of the lower gullies and say to my oxygen starved, semi-hallucinating self,
“Well, aren’t all these gullies the source of the White Dragon River? Don’t they all slowly fill up with seeping water to create the cascading torrent just a kilometer down the mountain?”
But I can see it. I can see the gully above all the other gullies just as the mountain pass disappears into the mist of clouds. Self-pride gets the best of me. I have come too far to cut corners now. I will not be denied. Finally, finally, I make it to the top. The source of the magical White Dragon River is a flat, muddy patch about five meters square. About ten meters above the source is a thermal spring creating a small pond, whose waters are giving off profuse amounts of steam, even in the now howling, mountain pass winds. Just beyond it, on the other side of the pass, another huge valley drops off rapidly with a flank of mountain tops disappearing into the cloud mist. I can only imagine what it looks like up here on a clear, azure day. With the Tibetan tents dotting one side, yak herds scattered on the other, the river valley cascading to the horizon below me and the rapidly coursing underside of clouds rushing just above my head, the scene is unforgettable. I think about where I started out and what I am accomplishing. I get a big smile on my face when the City Slickers finally pass me after I have started my descent back. They look at me like I’m crazy. Today, maybe they are right. But I did it. I scaled the source of the White Dragon River on foot, in the most challenging, slippery, rain soaked conditions. I check my altitude before leaving, 3,815 MASL which is 543 meters above Langmusi. I climbed over a 0.5km of vertical ascent. That’s about 155 stories or 1.5 Empire State Buildings, at close to four kilometers above Beijing. I also set my tracker and clock 11km to get back. So, the round trip to the source is 22km. I have to add two more for my misplaced Zeiss, so my trek today is a robust 24km. The verdant, emerald vistas all the way up and down, with the narrow White Dragon River rushing at the bottom of its steep valley, which is dotted with Tibetan tent homes, sheep and yaks, and beyond all this, cascading mountain ranges fading into the horizon, are vivid images that will forever be branded into my memory.
Outside Langmusi, I see a huge flock of big, tall, Dorset looking sheep covering the far mountainside. On the near side of the road, I can see about fifteen ewes that are separated from the flock. They are up on a very steep ridge, when suddenly, I see a shepherd pop out of some bushes and scale this incredibly pitched bank like a mountain goat, deus ex machina. Anybody else would be on all fours, hanging on for dear life trying to get to the top. It has been raining all day and that grass covered near-cliff must be as slippery as duck innards. I just have to stop to watch this amazing performance in athletic skill. The shepherd has a walking stick for support, but their hands never touch the ground and this gravity-defying acrobat stays upright the whole time. The shepherd gets above the lost group and drives them down the embankment, and seems to have an easier time getting down to the road than the errant sheep. Just incredible. Now I understand why I see so few sheep dogs. Tibetans do it one better. I start walking towards Langmusi again and this Spiderman shepherd comes walking up fast behind me. My shock of shocks is when I see this person is a diminutive young woman. Like me with my shamagh, her face is completely covered up with a long scarf (black and white stripes to my red and white checks), but she is much better prepared for the weather. She has a full body rain suit that sports a hood with a stiff bill over the eyes, to keep the water from running in her face. She obviously came to talk, but being Tibetan, I’m not sure if we can communicate. I say hello in Mandarin and she responds back with no problem. Being younger means she has learned Chinese at school. She tells me she is the shepherdess for this flock of over two hundred magnificent sheep. I can see her tents off on the other side of river, up the mountainside. She is probably just old enough to be married, but not yet with children. I congratulate her on her climbing and shepherding skills and with her nearly covered face, I only have her soft voice and chocolate black, Tibetan eyes to go on, to sense that she seems genuinely flattered. We talk for another couple of minutes, I wish her luck and move on. As I pass by Hong Bei’s place, I can see a good sized herd of yak being brought into the paddocks for the night. The total number of head is about 150, so his next-door neighbor’s herd must be quite big, unless they are tending a communal group of animals, which is quite possible. When I get back to the hotel and pull off my day saving rubber boots, I can see I sacrificed my big toe nails for the bragging rights. They are both as loose as a goose and suppurating blood serum. Yikes. I put tincture of iodine on them and they turn ochre dark, as the black fluid saturates all the freshly damaged tissue underneath the nails, burning like flaming irons in the fire. Looks like I get a special souvenir for my trek after all.
1- One of the most frequented blogs I have ever written, with thousands of page views, it can now be found on www.44days.net: 21st Century Dazibao. It has even been incorporated into school curricula for middle and high schools back in the US.
2- I was not about to ruin the atmosphere in Hong Bei’s tent home by asking a Tibetan to give me a quick lesson in Chinese characters. But best as I can tell, this is (穗油茶面), which means grain-spike oil tea flour. It is possible that the brown powder she started with was a mixture of Alpine barley flour and ground tea leaves, and could help explain why it was so expansive in the stomach.
Chapter 39: Chishui
Zhongdian in Yunnan stole the Shangri-La name, but Chishui, Guizhou is the place that really deserves it, hands down. It’s a natural paradise on Earth, with three nature parks that I will never forget visiting. Hurry and go before the super highway there is finished.
Hurry up and visit Chishui, before the multi-billion RMB superhighway connects it to Chongqing and Guiyang, and in whose shadow I drive to get here. Once this monster is opened, there will be an influx of humanity that will forever overwhelm this amazing area, its unpopulated charms and absolute wilderness. An excellent test tube comparison of what Chishui has to look forward to is Zhongdian, Yunnan, otherwise named by its promoters as Shangri-La. Once the influx reaches critical mass, the uniqueness and charms of the place get buried by an avalanche of tour groups. The bottomless greed that possesses the locals metastasizes to satisfy every visitor’s need, and the place’s cultural soul, the genesis of all this overkill in the first place, ends up being sucked dry, like a mummy.1 Chishui really does have a time machine, lost world feel about it. Deep, scarred valleys with powerful, coffee and cream to red ochre colored tropical rivers fill their floors. There are estimated to be over 4,000 waterfalls, some are world class in height. Bamboo forests teem up the valley walls and underneath them are huge stretches of gargantuan ferns, including the encyclopedic Alsophila and Cyathea varieties. These have evolved little over the last 200 million years, were the staple diet of brontosauri, stegosauri and all the other herbivore dinosaurs, and which later became a huge component of Mother Earth’s petroleum, coal and gas, buried deep underground. So to call Chishui Jurassic is not inaccurate. I keep expecting to see Rachel Welch come walking around a cliff corner in her lusty, One Million Years B.C. animal skin costume. Yabba Dabba Doo!
While not plentiful, I am able to see a few lizards, frogs and birds, as well as lots of butterflies and many insects. Still, other than here, at Jiuzhaigou afterhours and a little in Langmusi, the country’s fauna and fowl are tragically devastated. In spite of this zoological disappointment in China, Chishui has rainbows of flowers and densely lush vegetation pullulating everywhere you turn. With all the waterfalls seemingly every few meters, liquid soaked cliff faces are garlanded with exotic, multihued brackens, lichens, mosses and liverworts at every level. Red, purple, yellow and brown sandstone cliff faces tower hundreds of meters from the valley floors. On many of these gorge-high cliffs are falling cascades of varying height. Some start dropping right off the tops of the mountains, while others come gushing like jets right out of the rock faces, from fissures and large crevices, dispersing into a fine mist as they crash down below. While relatively empty of tourists, except some coming from Chongqing, Zunyi and Guiyang, the local governments have spared no expense in developing their nature parks. After my teeth gritting climbing adventures in Gansu and Sichuan, the trails here are beautifully laid out in sandstone and wood boardwalk, well-marked and well maintained. Not only that, but the entrance ticket prices are all around 30 kuai (€3.80/$4.80), which is 1990s prices, even for foreigners. All this being said, what are you waiting for? Chishui easily ranks as one of my top visits during 44 Days, and that’s in the face of some amazing competition.
Chishui Town literally sits on the border of Sichuan. Like Langmusi, the town is cut in half by a river, in this case, its namesake. Go across a bridge and the other town in Sichuan is called Jiuzhi (九支). People here are wonderfully warm and inviting. A foreigner like me is akin to a UFO sighting, so it’s got that 90s feel to it, with people coming up to me to ask all kinds of questions and are just exhilarated to have a chance to rub shoulders with a laowai. A few of them even can’t resist touching the hair on my forearms and making a big deal out of me being left handed, two traits that are not often seen among the Chinese.2 It started in Yunnan and has gotten to be progressively more challenging, but the Mandarin accents in this part of China are thicker than sod turf and just about as hard to digest. Like in Tibetan Sichuan, some of the older people don’t even bother, or can’t speak Mandarin, and try to speak to me in their local dialect, one of thousands of mutually incomprehensible argots that dot the Chinese linguistic landscape. The only common cipher that holds it all together is the Chinese written language. In some cases, I find myself in the funny situation of needing a third person to communicate: the extra interlocutor translates from the local dialect into Mandarin for me.
Even though this is the middle of the week, Chishui’s central market is one of the best I go to on this trip. Vendors and shop keepers are flattered when I approach them and if I wanted, I could not pay for any food in Chishui and just live off all the samples being handed to me at each stand, replete with smiling faces and inquisitive banter. Anything and everything to eat is for sale here, under this mostly covered, open air market, so I end up spending quite a bit of time visiting with the vendors, customers and admiring all the eye popping products smartly presented on display. There are tens of brands of rice, all kinds of different white, tan, brown and caramel colored tofus that look and taste like cheese; bread roll bakers, piles of once buried one hundred year-old eggs, roasted ducks like in Beijing, all kinds of exotic, tropical tubers and vegetables that I have never or only occasionally seen, young bamboo shoots and tender bamboo hearts, big fresh chains of ginger root that look like yellow and pink fingers amputated off of deformed, extraterrestrial monsters; twenty different kinds of dried noodles to choose from, vinegar and locally made moonshine shops selling their years-to-decades old elixirs at ever increasing prices, according to their age. It is easy to spend a couple of hours in this joyful, laid back and welcoming market, just taking it all in. A couple of the stands really stick out. They are two competing dentists offering their services to anyone who wants to sit down for what orally ails them, getting drilled on in front of a thousand passersby and gawkers. Nobody seems to give them any mind. They are very much a part of the daily market fabric here. They make dentures, clean, polish and pull teeth, lance mouth boils, pack abscesses with Novocain and antibiotics, work on gingivitis, you name it. Customers walk up, explain their problems or some are obviously old patients, so the dentist asks how it has been since the last visit and then says,
One of the dentists is quite diffident about my curiosity, but the more accessible of the two and his clients and I have a grand old time laughing and joking. I get some great pictures of the whole operation. The dentist is relaxed in a t-shirt and before getting to work with his full arsenal of solution-sanitized hand instruments and electric drills, he puts on a spelunker’s head light to see what’s going on, as well as a gauze face mask. No latex gloves though…
Time to leave the society of local markets and embrace Mother Nature in all her splendor. I visit three of the four popular nature parks in Chishui, each unique and well worth the time and effort. Due to scheduling constraints, I skip going to Sidonggou (四洞沟= Four Caves Canyon) the park closest to Chishui, which is the most frequented. I catch Red Rock Canyon (红石野谷= Hongshi Yegu) on a great day. It’s fairly hot today and the place is almost empty. The ambiance is striking and serene. There are various shades and hues of contrasting sunlight coursing through the bamboo trees, giant ferns, steep walled sandstone canyons, nonstop waterfalls and cascades, making it all very intoxicating. The park trail is essentially a big rectangular hike. You enter and walk along the valley floor towards the back of the park. From there, it is a nice climb up along a series of falls to the top of the mountain. Once on top, there is a really wonderful, sunny, level hike along the mountainside back towards the entrance. Then there is a climb back down another series of ravines with more spectacular waterfalls and mini-canyons.
At the top of first gorge is a great little shaded canteen, with beverages and food. There is only one group of four Chinese and myself to enjoy it. During the whole park visit, I can count all the visitors I see on two hands. Along the climb down, I pass through a picturesque overhanding cliff, tall and wide It looks like locals have been coming here for thousands of years to live, practice religious ceremonies and bury their dead, and it’s from where the park gets its name: Red Rock Canyon. It’s beyond fabulous and we could be in some national park in the United States out in Colorado or Arizona, with cliff hugging pueblos and ancient anthropological ruins everywhere. The whole semi-shaded, pottery bowl-shaped overhang has about every hue and color the Earth has to offer: yellows, reds, browns, purples and oranges. The Sun’s oblique, afternoon rays shoot down into bowl cutting the whole scene into two halves, one illuminated, the other in semishade. The entire idyllic setting is set off by long vines hanging from the overhang above. A finely misted waterfall, about 2m wide drops a cascade into the middle of the bowl, seeming to be falling from the sky, since it is easy to walk 360° around it down under the rim of hollowed out canyon. You can stand underneath it, to get cooled off by its chilly, misty waters, which evaporatively cool off during their descent. Am I on our Pale Blue Dot, or some utopian exoplanet that has yet to be colonized? It’s just mind bogglingly beautiful.
My next stop is a park called the Bamboo Sea (竹海= Zhuhai), which is isolated and more difficult to get to. It is part of a bigger park complex called Jinshagou (金沙沟= Gold Sand Canyon). The combi from Chishui drops us off in the town with the same name as the park. Once there, you either walk the 11km up to the top of the mountain, where the park is, or haggle for a taxi. I really want to hike up to the park, but it took longer to get here than anticipated, so I pay the 50 RMB (€6/$8) for a taxi up. As it turns out, it was a very wise move. The drive up is incessant and precipitous for an everyday road. It would take time to get to the top on foot. The only possible way to walk up and down in one day would be to spend the night in Jinshagou Town and take off early in the morning, which is time I do not have today. The road winds up the 800m tall mountain like an uninterrupted counterclockwise apple peel, 11km long.
The Bamboo Sea is another well-of-course-it’s-to-be-expected great visit in a spectacular nature park, replete with towering bamboo forests, armies of giant ferns, multi-colored flowers and trees, dancing butterflies, rainbow hued insects, glorious waterfalls and cascades. Even though it is around noontime, it quickly becomes apparent that the Bamboo Sea’s mosquitos are a superbreed in a class of their own. At first, I spray my head, hands and neck with DEET, thinking that this will do the trick. But not more than a minute later, they are bombarding my face, ears and head worse than ever. It’s almost as if I put on anti-DEET full of pheromones that attract these blood suckers. They have evolved to be DEET resistant and it is simply a waste of time putting it on. My Arabian shamagh, the red and white checkered cotton square that is folded into a triangle and worn on men’s heads in the Middle East, saves the day again. It is so useful for any number of situations and these marauding high noon skeeters in the Bamboo Sea are just such an occasion. I put it on correctly, like Arabs do and then use it to completely cover my face, leaving only my glasses exposed. I pull my floppy fisherman’s hat down low to seal off the top. They continue to bombard my now protected face and really do not even mess with my exposed hands, so they have really evolved to be attracted to carbon dioxide from my exhalations. They are evil looking little buggers, pitch black with white stripes like the knee high socks worn by some rugby or soccer teams. Thank goodness for my shamagh, I can enjoy my time in this incredibly tall bamboo forest, which was turned into a nature park to preserve the ancient, treelike, dinosaur Alsophila ferns.
They spent a fortune on the walking path here. While not very long, much of it is a raised steel frame with a wood boardwalk to saunter on. Other than a party of about ten from Zhejiang, the place is deserted. As I continue on, it is really bizarre. There is an exact elevation where the mosquitos pounce on you en masse and continue to do so above that altitude and then a few steps below, they stop. I have no idea what they are feeding on to be in such large numbers. I don’t even see any livestock. It could be they go down to where people and animals live when it gets dark. Either that, or it is a duel to the death between these wisebugs and a million insect bats that may live in caves nearby. I run into a really strange looking wasp nest. It is hanging off the end of a pine tree branch. It is long and narrow, having the color of and looking like a stretched out loofah sponge, covered with hundreds of humming, caramel colored wasps. They are all hanging onto the outside of the nest and beating their wings furiously. Needless to say, I don’t mess with them and after getting as close as comfortable can be to observe, I step back a few meters and check them out with my Zeiss.
I decide to walk the 11km down the mountain and am sure glad I did, although the last two klicks are a little more than I bargained for. On this nice, downward sloped trek, my eyes gorge on plants, flowers, forests, critters, butterflies and other insects and even a few birds. One place I see what I think is an animal stretched out in the distance, on a side road. I go check and in fact, it is a swarm of black and gold butterflies clustered together, drinking water percolating out of the cool, shaded sandstone. A really beautiful, natural sight. I walk through some Miao farmhouse properties and get to study their mud on bamboo lattice frames. The fine mud is spread on the lattice and then smoothed out with a trowel. Then, it is painted white, and all the window frames and door trim are bordered with the Miao red ochre paint I saw in the White Horse Mountain valley on the way to Chishui from Zunyi, where Mao’s Red Army passed through during their Long March. Corn and hot peppers are being harvested, laid out on the road to dry. Rivulets seem to be running everywhere and there is enough water for quite a few stands of wetland rice production, even high up here in the mountains. The terraced valley sides along the way are immaculate. About two klicks away from Jinshagou Town, still further down the mountain road, I stop at a really cool restaurant, which has its own private waterfall that feeds a big pond to raise fish. Impressive and idyllic. I stay for a good hour, talking to the three people who run the place while rehydrating. Unfortunately, they hurt their business by not having any rooms to rent for the night, so you can only stop and eat. They agree with my suggestion, but a quick survey of the place shows that they really have no possibility to build or convert space into bedrooms.
No sooner do I take off to finish the trek down into town, that it starts raining. Afternoon showers during this rainy season have been a common occurrence, starting in Langmusi, but until now, like in many subtropical to tropical zones, these afternoon showers only last a few minutes and then stop. Not today. I find myself in the middle of real, long lasting, live, flash tropical storm. It quickly gets very violent, with lots of overhead thunder, lightning and thrashing, gusting, high-speed winds. I am totally unprepared for this and only have my rain poncho to protect me and my full backpack. Try as I might, I cannot get the poncho over the pack on my back by myself. I always find somebody nearby to help me. Not today. The stand of bamboo trees that was blocking the sheets of rain a little, is now water soaked and of no use. It’s time to bite the bullet. It’s either me or my backpack and I opt to protect my pack, Zeiss and everything else I’m carrying. I fashion the poncho over the backpack and step out into the flooded road, whose water is moving very fast, given the deep pitch of the mountain. Water is rushing as deep as my ankles in some places. There is nothing I can do, I am soaked and shivering cold within seconds, as I am buffeted and blown about by the powerful gusts of tropical storm winds. Luckily, the lightning has moved a few klicks away, so I feel less threatened about getting struck. As timing would have it, I get back down to Jinshagou Town just as the flash storm passes. The townsfolk get a real guffawing hoot at seeing me, as my drenched-as-a-street-cur look is quite a sight. As luck would have it, I run into the taxi driver who took me up to the top this morning, and he really lets out a roar, heavy on the mocking side, hounding me that I should have called him. I blurt out,
“We foreigners are not like you – we like adventure!”
This is totally unnecessary and such a gross generalization as to be off color. I sincerely regret saying it. To get back at me, he tells me the 16:00 bus has already left and there are no more. I’ll have to go back with him. I sit down in front of a store to let the water drain off my clothes and body. The nice shop lady and her daughter tell me to be patient, that a 17:00 bus from Zunyi will stop here briefly. Luckily they are right. I can’t help being human and smile like the Cheshire cat at the taxi driver, as I get on board. Hey you! See!
The following day, as if the first two parks weren’t spectacular and unforgettable enough, the third one proves to be Chishui’s culminating event. The Shizhangdong Waterfall (十丈洞瀑布= 33 Meter Cave Waterfall) is a world class nature park, with one of the best series of big time waterfalls I’ve ever seen. I’m not talking Victoria tall or Niagara wide. But the whole ambiance is full of lost world Jurassic forests that are tumbling down precipitous valley walls. Jutting out of the tree canopy are skyscraper high sandstone cliffs, with vines and multiple waterfalls shooting out, up and down their heights, crashing into the Fengxi River (风溪河) and Danxia (丹霞) valley below, all in an ambiance of total isolation and wilderness. It is really special. The village at the bottom of the cascades is photogenic in itself, with three and four story Miao style buildings right on the waterline, like Venice on the canals.
I hike up to the biggest falls, which is the namesake of the park. It is 76m tall and only 1m shorter than Guizhou’s tour group tourist trap, Huangguoshu Falls (黄果树大瀑布) in the province’s southwest. It is about a 6km walk up the Danxia valley to the Shizhangdong Waterfall, as the road goes. I make a day of it, taking trails that go down to the river level and back up. Each track leads to nice hikes in and around the huge boulders that dot the valley floor and adorn the Fengxi River. The view of the scaling, color banded sandstone cliffs and the mountains above them are something to behold. Several of the trips down to water level lead to beautiful, postcard quality, river wide water falls. The Shizhangdong Waterfall is actually 25m taller than Niagara Falls, but is only about as wide as it is tall. Niagara is about one kilometer wide, so this Fengxi River fall is very tall and compact. I approach the falls from the right side via a secondary path. The main path comes straight down from the road, walking into the charging waters. It creates a continual roar and a mist-soaked wind that is blasting away from the crashing waters, nonstop, at about 30kph. Some visitors have umbrellas, which are futilely ripped out of shape by the powerful water wind. It’s really impressive to stand there and face it. It feels like standing on an ocean dike somewhere, with a storm roaring in off the water.
Vendors are selling cheap plastic ponchos that people are using for five minutes and then dumping on the ground in a pile. Yuck. I’m enjoying chilling down with all the evaporative cooling coursing over my sweat soaked clothes and body, and opt to spend my money on a fresh cucumber for lunch instead. I’ve never eaten a whole, big, fat, yellowish, raw cucumber like this before. Quite refreshing, although a little salt would be nice. Shizhangdong is one of the nicest and most impressive nature parks I’ve ever been in. What I see today just scratches the surface of the whole park, as a huge billboard sized map shows there are many hiking trails in the mountains above. Definitely a place to revisit, especially before that monster highway in the air pulls up here.
My Chinese landlady in Chishui, Ms. Guo and I become good buddies during my stay, as she adopts me like I have been several times on this journey. She shares the food out of her refrigerator with me and I reciprocate by bringing her fresh fruit from the market. She invites me to eat dinner with her, her friends and son, lets me use her clothes washer and does not charge me. The TV in the front room is going non-stop, except for sleep time and is the focal point of her zhaodaisuo. A very beautiful woman in her late thirties, I never see Ms. Guo’s husband and can’t help but inquire,
“Oh, he doesn’t stay here, he has job someplace else.”
That could surely be the reason, as it is not uncommon for Chinese couples to live in different cities because of their two jobs. I met the couple in Shapotou, Ningxia, who adopted me for the day, Mr. Wu and Ms. Yang. They live far away from each other for their two jobs. I know many other Chinese couples in the same situation. But there may be more to her story than just work. This is because Ms. Guo is a mahjong (麻将= majiang) addict, as are her three female friends. This celebrated Chinese game is a cross between dominoes and cards on steroids, with its 144 (or 152 or 160) thick, colorful tiles, chock block full of numbers and suits. It is not dissimilar to gin rummy, but local permutations and rules abound, from region to region and table to table. This four-player game is not ancient like Chinese chess or Go, purportedly having been invented in the 19th century by bored soldiers with time to kill, sitting around in their barracks. But its popularity and addictiveness are renowned, including being the most popular table game in Japan, and played by millions of overseas Chinese across the planet. It is also an excellent game for gambling and was actually banned by Baba Beijing after independence in 1949, being vilified as a capitalist weakness to be shunned. After the PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) hangover of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese needed healing and entertainment. Many found succor in playing mahjong together and Baba Beijing wisely looked the other way. In any case, Communist ideology had ironed out the gambling aspects that were so central to its pre-independence play. Its prohibition was officially lifted in 1985, where thereafter, mahjong joined cards and chess on the sidewalks, and under the shade trees of hot sultry summer evenings. Mahjong has even entered international popular culture. Eddie Cantor, the WWII American jazz crooner, sang a song called, Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong.
And mahjong is all these four Chishui Mas do, during their waking hours. When she is not there, I ask her son where she is and he tells me she’s at her friend’s, you guessed it, playing mahjong. From the moment she wakes up and has breakfast, there they are, playing mahjong in the front room. She has one of those really nice mechanical, casino parlor quality tables. It is equipped with four trap doors on the green felt surface that open up with the push of a button to drop in all the previous game’s tiles into a mixer below the tabletop. To start a new game, they are all shuffled underneath and out of sight, then each person gets a fresh hand through the same trap door for the next round. A crystal ball with cheesy neon lights in the middle rolls the dice for them too. I am surprised when she tells me this high tech toy only costs about 2,000 RMB (€250/$320). I wouldn’t be surprised if Ms. Guo’s husband is a mahjong widower. They are a part of Chinese social lore, especially in the southern part of the country where mahjong is especially popular. Practice the Twelve Steps of Mahjong Anonymous, Ms. Guo, twelve steps.
Saying goodbye to Chishui, the bus ride back to Zunyi takes me back along the X308, so I get the see the magnificent Miao/Red Army valley in the White Horse Mountains again. Like doubling back up the Liqi Valley in Sichuan, the different light and perspective make it a completely new trip. Zunyi gets even shorter shrift this second go around. I don’t even spend the night and opt to take an evening train to Guiyang. I could stay one more day in Zunyi or could have done so in Chishui for that matter, but absolutely do not want to take the risk of missing my August 11th train back home to Beijing. Sad to say, but the end of this amazing 44 Days is starting to rear its ugly head.
1- For a fascinating look at what is happening in Zhongdian and what Chishui has to look forward to, once the superhighway is finished, this three-part series is a must-read: www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/china/130213/china-shangri-la-global-economy-tourism-part-1
2- Like all of humanity, China’s people have the same, consistent percent of the population of lefthanders, about 15%. The difference here is once they go to kindergarten, all bets are off: they are forced to write with their right hands, no matter how difficult or stressful. But you can still spot them out. They use chopsticks with their left hands, playing ping pong, badminton, kicking and throwing a ball, etc.
Want a fun, low cost honorary degree in Chinese Studies? Jeff’s book, 44 Days, will have you laughing while learning and becoming an expert on all things Middle Kingdom. If you live in China, buy it on the 44 Days website, clicking on either Print Book, Ebook or Color Ebook.