The Verb

I like to think that I could be Buddhist.  The ideas appeal to me, and there are certain phrases like “live in the moment” that strike a chord.  Do not kill, be kind to one another–these are things I agree with.  It could fit, right?
So when I go to temples or monasteries, I almost feel like I’m “in the know.”  Like, I’m aware of what they’re trying to say and could probably say it myself if given enough time and intelligence to think about it.
This morning, Maeva and I decided to join in the walk around the monastery.  It’s about 3km, and takes walkers past prayer wheels, monks-in-training, and all of the sights we’d later be seeing in an afternoon tour of the monastery.  I thought “yeah, symbolism, I get it” as we entered.  But as it turned out, I had no idea.
For one, prayer wheels.
Prayer wheels.
Prayer wheels.
They’re like wooden spindles set up in rows, painted in faded red with designs on them.  Underneath are structures that resemble wooden plates and along the sides wooden bars.  As we walked, the we reached out and spun the wheels.  Touching them somewhere, keeping the energy going in our clockwise circumnavigation of the monastery.
“Damn!” I thought as my fingers rammed into the wooden handle of the prayer wheel.  I reached out for the plate on the bottom which slid past my fingers, hardly touching.  We’d go down the rows, then enter smaller rooms with more prayer wheels, Tibetans humming and chanting as they fingered the relics up close.
It wasn’t a walk for the Buddhist elite, either.  Old women, crippled men on crutches, children kowtowing every other step with fingers caked in chalk and scrapes, stringy men lying face-flat in the dirt to bow.  Followers bumping heads against the brick walls, near-invalids bent over along the path.  They touched as many prayer wheels as they could, with the creaking and squeaking that comes from constant use.
A walk for anyone willing to walk.
A walk for anyone willing to walk.
We were walking, turning, pressing fingers into wood, going in circles.  In constant motion.  It didn’t matter what ideals I had, or how I interpreted certain pictures or not.  This was about Buddhism the verb, not Buddhism the noun.
As I walked, seeing the movement and the absolute sacrifice of body and soul that went into this sect of Buddhism, it got me thinking.  I’m not going to be a vegetarian.  I’m not as generous as I ought to be.  I’m not willing to give up earthly pleasures just yet.  I kill mosquitos.
I could stick with the Buddhism-the-noun ideas that I like and gloss over the rest.  I could say “close enough” and live in a half-world full of things I’ve specifically picked and chosen for myself.  But I have to be honest.  That’s not Buddhist.  Nor am I.
Because as I watched Buddhism-the-verb unfold, it struck me that perhaps religion isn’t meant to be convenient, or “whatever suits the life you currently live.”  There ought to be sacrifice.  There ought to be some kind of effort that goes into it.  There needs to be intent and sincerity.  There needs to be verb.  
So as we rounded the final bend of the walk, I felt an almost-release.  I am not many things.  All I am is someone turning my own wheels, thinking, and ready for the day that I’m ready to verb, whatever that means.

Xiahe in the Dark

We rose from our beds at 4:30 AM.  Still dark, the sky tinted in moon, we trudged along the dirt road leading into the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe.  Another world, as though suspended in time, save for the distant rumble of cars on the highway and the rustle of quick-dry pants. 
A girl with us said there was supposed to be a procession that morning.  So we stole through the mysterious dark, tailing a monk as his red robes were sucked into the gloom. 
“Where is he going?” we asked.  But none of us knew.  We just kept following, in the hopes that he was heading somewhere cool.
He turned left, but when we looked, there was nothing.  So we went right, the sky tinting a faint turquoise despite the moon’s insistent glare. 
“I don’t think there’s a procession,” the girl said.  If there had been, we would have seen something as early as 5 AM.  Still we walked on, hearing chanting, or something like that.  It seemed to weave, to lilt, to move like the prayer flags we’d seen in the mountains. 
In the distance, a square of light, which was the meditation hall.  The hall, from where we stood in the chill, was golden, warm.  We wanted to go in. 
As we moved closer, the chanting and singing got rounder, fuller.  We stepped through the outer doors to a concrete square with steps in front of the hall.  Red robes clumped in a line on the steps.
I didn’t need the girl to say “Oh my god,” or for anyone to ask “did you hear that?” because it was all around.  The monks, the voices, the proof that Buddhism is not for the fickle. 
They each had a specific place, a spot on the steps where they were supposed to be.  The head monk at the door, full regalia–yellow cap, staff, golden sash down his robes.  On the steps, red-robed monks.  As we stood, each clump of red swayed, a yellow cap shaped like a horse’s head fluttering in the breeze.
And each of them sang.  None singing the same harmony, yet all harmonizing perfectly.  Pulsing with urgency, overlapping and rising to the golden edifices atop the monastery.  I couldn’t have picked out words even if I knew Tibetan.  Because they were interrupting, pushing and pleading their voices to a place beyond words.    
All throughout the sonorous calls, a monk walked along the top.  I thought he was the one making the prayer flags shudder, but it could have been the breeze.  Without warning, he blew into a long horn.  It groaned, and at once, the monks stopped singing, took off their shoes, and entered.  
Distant chanting from within, and then we were wrapped in profound silence, save for the crinkle of insence burning.  
And when the sun rose, still it was there.  The rolling, pleading, overlapping call of the darkness that embodied what it meant to tiptoe in the gloom.

Warriors of Stone

Did you know that some of the Terra-Cotta Warriors in Xi’an are headless?
It’s fine, I didn’t either.  In fact, I thought all of them were more or less fully-formed battalions rising from the earth with grim faces and spears.  But then, with something nearly as old as The Great Wall itself, you sort of have to expect some kind of battle scars.
An entire room of headless warriors, though.  Hmm.
Apparently, it’s because the emperor at the time died before sections of his giant army of the damned were complete, and the head was the last ornament.  Picture it: the crazy Emperor Qin, completely insane from mercury poisening (a rather ineffective immortality serum) telling the builders to “just leave it” as his companions into the afterlife arrived–sightless, clueless.
“It’s important to understand that these would not be continued once the emperor died,” the guide said.  She had a wan smile that always seemed slightly disappointed that there weren’t more questions.  “So they may not have heads, but it’s not an accident.”
There were accidents, of course.  A roof caved in, smothering ranks and ranks of warriors.  Looking down into the pit, I saw severed arms, chinks of armor, weapons split down the middle, and half-faces searching for something to see.
Other than that, though the waves and waves of warriors are fully intentional.  Every face, pupil-less set of eyes, and thin lips a work made from the earth.  By prisoners, by the generally unfortunate, by anyone that could afford to creep into the anonymity of death once their work was complete.  Some signed their names into the sightless soldiers for one scrap of immortality.  But, like Emperor Qin, it was not made to last.
The dust-dry soldiers, welded to the earth, are in some ways the tombstones for those that helped to create them.
And that’s why the headless soldiers are my favorite.  Sure there’s the famous sight–the heaps of soldiers marching in one direction, purposefull and direct.  That’s the awe-inspiring one.  The one you’d send a postcard of.
The headless soldiers, their aimless ramble through the stones, along the earth, up against the horses and the carriage-bearers…not as much.  Somehow, though, they seem more fitting.
Because if I have an army to come with me to the afterlife, I would want them to be as clueless as me.  To remind me that, no matter how many tonics or tribulations or desperate flights from the end, it will still come–intentional or unintentional.  And no one will see it when it does.

The Power of Thumb- Part 5

In the entire day of hitchhiking, we had made it perhaps 100 km down the road to a dusty claptrap of a roadstop, thumbs out.

“I don’t think we’re going to make it to Hohhot any time soon…” I said.
That went without saying.

Lucky for us, we got 2 drivers in a row willing to take us to Lindong, a city a little further along our route before the day was done.  The first Maeva found as I was trying to wrangle together some willing truck drivers.  He didn’t say much aside from “Hohhot?  That’s pretty far,” and dropped us off at a ridiculously out-of-our-price-range hotel in Tianshan, a surprisingly nice city in the middle of Inner Mongolia.  The next driver was a nice man with lots of shoeboxes in the back who was saddened when I mistook him for a taxi and spent the rest of the drive trying to prove he wasn’t a bad man.

“Have some water!” he said.  “See, there is no reason to be nervous.”

We really weren’t.  Though, our initial goal of making to Hohhot the following day was looking rather grim.

The man happened to work in a construction company, and so was able to hook us up with a super cheap hotel.  He drove us through a stunning sunset among tall hills and striated clouds to a sort of dumpy area of town.

The sky, leading the way.
The sky, leading the way.

Our beds were 20 yuan each, and we thought it was worth exactly that.  There was a metal pipe extending over the head-side of the bed, the pillows were more like sandbags, and there were no showers in this hotel.  But hey, cheap!

“We’ll get up early tomorrow,” I suggested.  Maeva agreed.  At 6:00 AM we rolled out of our musty beds and stuffed our things back into our backpacks, realizing that we either smelled like mosquito repellent or truck driver.  There was a knock on our door.  It was the man who drove us to the hotel from the previous night.
“I want to treat to tea!”  he said.  He was far too awake on a Sunday morning to suit me.
“But…not a lot of time,” we mumbled, still sleepy.  He wouldn’t hear it.  We had plain noodles for breakfast, Mongolian milk tea, and then, because we were so classy, we stole toilet paper on the way out for our day.  We didn’t want to lose any time this day.
He dropped us off at the side of the road, and we resumed, turning away when taxis zoomed by, cursing them when they came in clumps with regular cars.  Our potential rides.  A couple on their way to work pulled over, and drove us to the next town, which was maybe 20 minutes away.  The woman took a picture.
“We’re sort of paying our way with pictures,” Maeva mused.
The next car took us only as far as the next toll booth.  The following car took us to an intersection.
‘At this rate,’ I thought, ‘We’re never getting to Hohhot.’
Then, a red car pulled over and a man got out to help us put our bags in.  We said the name of the next town “Keqi” and he said it was on the way.  So we settled into the seats, me next to a pile of what looked to be hotel towels, and got ready for another stint.
“So where are you headed?” Maeva asked him.
“Oh, I’m going to Hohhot.”
“Uh…so are we,” she said.  “Could you…could you take us there?”
“Yeah, no problem.”
And we looked at each other, dumbfounded by this stroke of incredible luck.  A straight-shot to Hohhot.
We wanted to make it up to him, because, really, it was about 9+ hours in a car that day.  But he wouldn’t let us.  We stopped for lunch and tried to pay, but he sneakily went into the back and paid first.  So, Maeva took out her guitarlele and sang for a while, the cool notes of her folksy voice blending in perfectly with the wave of scenery on the road.  He played guitar, too, and when we pulled over, strummed a few chords.  We bashed around to Florence and the Machine, to Muse, to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and more as the mountains turned craggy, stony and, well, very Inner-Mongolian.  Then, it went back to being more grassland country, except with the pockmarked face of sand etched in-between the blades.  Wind turbines swished in the sky.  The Inner Mongolian sky that lasts for a long, long time.
It was a long day for us, and probably longer for him.  By the time we made it to the city limits, calling the hostel for more specific directions, we wanted nothing more than to be lying down on a bed in a nice place (without metal pipes).  It took a long time to find the place, our driver clearly going out of his way, insistent that it was no problem for him.  As he drove, I slipped a 100 yuan bill and a thank-you note into the towels.
And then, in a victorious sweep of rainwater flooding the gutters of Hohhot, of people swarming around the muddy waves and trying not to get soaked, we made it.
It was wet, it was dank, it was pretty anticlimactic, but when we at last entered the hostel and said that we were the hitchhikers (no, not the ones taking a taxi, wrong “da che”) I felt as though we were gods.  We had people all along the road to inform that we’d made it–truck drivers, tourists, drivers, and families.  We thought about taking a shower, but dove right into a cold bottle of Chinese beer.
That’s when another traveler walked in from the rain.
“You would not believe the trip I had to get here!” he said.
Maeva and I sort of looked at each other and said “You have no idea.”

The Power of Thumb- Part 4

We watched cars zoom past on the highway we weren’t originally planning on taking.  Instead we were on our bitty driveway, getting fake-outs from the rumbling highway.

“How badly do we want to go on the pretty road?” Maeva asked.  The highway would take us further south, away from the scenery, but closer to more cars.

“Let’s go,” I said.  We went to the side of the road once more, past a small bee-keeping tent (swearing that we had more than enough honey).

“You know, I don’t think they know what a thumb means,” Maeva said.  “It was when I was waving ‘hello’ to some cars that they pulled over.”  So I went in front with my blonde hair with the thumb out, and she was behind, flapping her hand as if hailing a taxi.  Within minutes, a car stopped.  It was a porsche.

And then the window in the back rolled down to reveal a British guy.  “Do you speak English??” he asked excitedly.


“Can we give you a lift?”

“Uh, yeah!”

And so we got into the nice porsche.  Th British guy, named Ben, was visiting his Chinese girlfriend’s parents and they were on vacation in the Inner Mongolian countryside.  It was weird, because we really hadn’t seen any foreigners around.  Weirder still, they were studying in France.  In Maeva’s city.

“C’est impossible!” she cried.  Chance swept us along the highway, stuffed in the backseat of the porsche with an eager couple telling us about the adventures of Ben meeting a Chinese family without a large arsenal of Chinese.  Maeva took out her guitarlele and the time went by much faster than I thought it would.

“I wonder where we are on the map…” she said.  We peered over at her camera to check.

South.  Much farther south than originally planned.  Still no sign of heading west.

“But, hey!  We’re right on a motorway!  It should be easy from here on out, right?”
We checked into a fancy hotel that offered a closet-like cell for us to stay in for 80 yuan/night.  One king-sized bed, in which we were over a meter apart when sleeping.  The doors to the bathroom didn’t close all the way, and the lights right over the bed were as bright as searchlights.

That night, we put on some clean clothes and went out for a cold beer.  Then, with some crackers, began to dip into the tubs of honey we were given earlier that day.  Things would be more straightforward the next day.


The next day, it took us almost two hours to walk out of town, out of taxi-zone, where they’d stop thinking we were just lost, stupid tourists.  (Partly true, anyway).  We held out our thumbs, flapped, did whatever we could, until finally a car pulled over.  It was about 10 am, which was much later than we’d hoped to be getting started along the road.

Inside was a couple that grinned from ear to ear to have foreigners in their car.

“It’s almost lunch!” they said.  “Let us treat you to lunch!”

“No, we’re in a hurry!” we tried to insist.  A late start meant a slower day.  But there was nothing for it.  They took us to their hotel and we posed for picture after picture with a different assortment of baby, sister and uncle.  They led us to a restaurant where we were fed plate after plate of rich food, cold beer, and were asked for pictures.  An hour passed.  Then another half an hour.  They were starting to run out of questions.

“Have you seen eggplant before?”

“Yes…” we said.  We were starting to get antsy.  We drank more beer, and so went from antsy to tipsy.  At last, they led us to the side of the road.  We were giggling at the passing cars.

“I would love to be in a truck…” Maeva said.

As if hearing our request, a huge blue truck stopped.  A shirtless driver up front, a sleeping guy in the backseat.  It was much higher than we expected, so we had to climb up into the front seat, the giant windows like a fishbowl.  Bouncing over the rickety roads, still punch-drunk (or just drunk, not sure) as the drivers mowed over obstacles in their way.

View from the fishbowl.
View from the fishbowl.

Until we reached the road block.

“How long do you think we’ll have to wait?” we asked.

“Eh, maybe an hour.”

Three and a half hours later, we chugged our ways along.  Now we were way behind, still not very far from Tongliang, where we’d slept the previous night.  They decided to take a detour through a cornfield, with us bouncing all the way up to the ceiling of the truck.  It gained us absolutely no ground, though it did give them Manly Points as they budged up in the convoy of other trucks.

“Can you swim?” they asked to make conversation.


“What kind of water?” the man in the back, who had previously been silent said.

“Any kind of water.”

“How about that?”  The driver pointed to a muddy, shallow, fast-moving river.  The truck was going slow enough for us to see the torrents that would very likely kill us if given the chance.

“No…” we said.  That would be more like rolling around in the mud.  They nodded and went back to the road.

We kept bouncing and swaying along the road, until we reached a small dusty town with one hotel on the middle.   The driver pulled over and said he wasn’t going all the way to Tianshan after all.  He was going to get dinner, and then we could set out the following morning.

What could we do?  Not wanting to stick around in a dusty roadside hotel, we went back on the road and hoped for the best.  Or at least anything to propel us further along a road proving to be more difficult than we’d anticipated.
(to be continued)

The Power of Thumb- Part 3

“Okay,” Maeva said.  “We want to go here because it’s pretty.”  She was pointing to the picture of a map she took on her camera, scrolling along to show the drivers we met where we were going.  Tour Guy actually had a real map of Inner Mongolia, but her small viewing screen on the camera was as good as we could get.  We were still on the road, still trying to pick up cars, and as the day progressed, we were beginning to wonder if this is what every day would be like.  Currently, it was a car that definitely had room for us.  We explained the goal of gettin to Hohhot.

“That’s impossible,” they said.  “There just aren’t any people.”

“But we want to try anyway…” we insisted, getting somewhat tired of the familiar response.

On the side of the road in Aershan City, we’d been mostly drawing stares and flashing cameras.  Most people weren’t heading in our direction: the next town, Wuchagou.

“Just take a train!” a girl from a nearby restaurant said, bouncing over.  She had a gap in her teeth and was speaking very slowly for our benefit.

“No, we want to hitchhike.”

“That’s too expensive!”

The words for “hitchhike” (da che) sound very close to the words for “to take a taxi” (da che).  No, we were not taking a taxi all the way to Hohhot.  But it’s hard to get that across to people who may have never seen hitchhikers before.

“Daaaaaa cheeeeeeeee,” we’d say, trying to emphasize the first tone differentiating “taxi ride” and “hitchhiking.”

“That’s impossible,” the girl said before running off to her parents.  We kept at it, thumbs out.

“I think it’s raining…” Maeva said.

“Well, more pity points for us,” I said.

We waited for a while longer, when a man in a large red SUV pulled over.  He was heading to Wuchagou, which was in our direction.  So we hopped in, shaking off the little raindrops first.

“Hello…where are you from?” he asked in slow English.  I told him in Chinese, but he kept up the English, so we went with it.  He was heading to a friend’s son’s wedding in Wuchagou, and was very excited to meet us.

“I have a daughter,” he said.  “She’s 33.”

“But…aren’t you 43?”  Maeva asked, since he’d already told us his age.


“So, that’s impossible.”

“Oh, sorry, she’s 23,” he said.  “In Middle school.  Very happy.”

“Is she a teacher?” I asked.

“No, a student.”


He counted on his fingers.  “13.  She is 13 years old.”


He drove pleasantly around for a while.  We settled into our rather comfortable seats, when he suddenly pulled over by a hillside with red flowers.  Maeva and I looked at each other, wondering what he was up to.

“These red flowers are called “red flower” in Chinese.  You can eat them!” he said hopping out of his car.  He ran up the hill and picked 4-5 of them and thrusting them into our hands.  “The…green…it tastes like…(he said potato in Chinese).”

“The stem tastes like potato?” I asked.

“Yeah yeah yeah!”  And he continued to drive.

On the sides of the road are bee-keepers selling honey.  Massive tubs of honey that would last most people for at least a month at a time.  We commented to each other how much we like honey, how much less depressing Chinese breakfast would be with some honey…when he pulled over again.  He disappeared into the tent to talk to the owners and emerged with three large tubs of honey.  More honey than we could possibly want in a lifetime.   We thought about how in the hell we would carry that much honey along the road, but didn’t dwell on it.  We were just going to have extra weight and that was that.

“We better sing for him…” Maeva said.  And she took out her guitarlele for some music.  The rest of the drive passed, us trying to thank him and making sure we didn’t say we liked anything else.  (Though Maeva said we ought to say we liked a car, to see what would happen).  He pointed to the hills that rolled green and supple around us as we neared the town.

“This is called cannon valley sometimes.”  He paused.  “Because when the Japanese invaded, the hills were full of their cannons.”

And on that note, he dropped us off.  We wandered around, passing by some truck drivers who said we were going the wrong direction.  We readjusted, ending up on a sparse road.  The road we were told was too impossible.

“It’s okay, we have time,” I said.

But after about half an hour, a car stopped and offered to take us to next intersection.  We told the driver that we wanted to go along the pretty route north, but he said it was impossible.  But, rather than leave it at that, he agreed to take us to the intersection so we could test our luck.

“This way goes to Aershan,” the driver said, pointing one way along a busy highway.  “That way goes to Wulanhot.”

“Where do we go?”

He pointed to a small tractor road barely wider than a driveway.

“But, if all else fails,” he said.  “We’ll be coming back this way tomorrow…”  And then he drove off.

We walked to this small road.  There wasn’t even the echo of a car or truck, tractor, or donkey-cart.

“This could be a while…” I said.

(to be continued)

The Power of Thumb- Part 2

Maeva and I hitchhiked our way into a tour.  That’s where things stood.  And, as it turned out, it wasn’t so bad.  The car was pretty comfy, and we got to see all that we’d hoped to see anyways. Inner Mongolian singers wailed on the radio, and we of course did our best to imitate them, to the amusement of our driver.  Maeva had a guitarlele (a mix between a guitar and a ukelele) that she’d bring out to sing with.  And so we made our ways to Manzhouli.
Which is basically Russia.
All signs were in Chinese, Mongolian script, and then Russian.  We kept looking at the Russian words, because they almost looked English, only to give a double-take and realize that it was like drunk English, with R’s backward and crazy N’s.  The word for “restaurant” was “PECTOBAH” so we walked around saying it with a thick Russian accent exactly how it looked.  It is the only Russian word I know.
Steeples, domes, gold, Russian, Russians…we kept asking each other if this was still China at all.  When we tried to talk to Russians to ask how to say things in Russian, they neither spoke Chinese or English.  So we were emphatically saying “Pectobah” wherever we went and happily getting greeted in Russian.  The driver got us a great deal on a hotel room, which originally would have been over 300 yuan (barf) and ended up about 100.  We went to bed dreaming in Russian.
So Russian.
So Russian.
The next day, still part of this tour, we made our ways to Hulun Lake.

In Lonely Planet, it talks about how the lake sort of just rises out of the grasslands, like an apparition unveiled out of nowhere.  I would have to agree.  We were going along over small hills, dipping down, then going back up, only to descend and see a huge flat lake.

“I really want to go swimming,” Maeva said.

This lake was really the only thing bringing us to the area, so we were expecting something spectacular.  What we saw was a very green, weedy, plastic-bottle-attacked bog.
“Still want to go swimming?” I asked Maeva.
“Eh, no.”
We spent a grand total of 15 minutes there, deciding to move on to make it to the park.
I’ll skip much of the details of the drive, only to say that cows in Inner Mongolia have a wonderful “I don’t give a shit attitude” about roads. Cars stop for them as they stare back, chewing their cud.  And the roads were buckled and grainy, full of potholes and more critters not bothering to bother about modernity.  We made it to the park after an entire day of driving, spending the night in a hotel definitely not worth 150 yuan.  The next day, the park.
Aershan.  Kind of like Yellowstone in the US, with gaping lakes and dramatic cliffs, and prickled fields of trees along the hills.  I was astounded at the green, and also how extraordinarily American it somehow felt.  We stood by a large lake at the entrance, amazed and silent, reverent for the gods of trees.  We went deeper.  The park, being formed by volcanic action, has crater lakes where fish have disappeared, cuckoo birds that forever sound as if they’re on the opposite side of the lake, birch trees so white they looked erased from the green around them.  We had to climb a monotony of stairs to find some of them, but the views were (usually) worth it.  And then we found ourselves looking down over cliffs toward more lakes.  Rushing rivers, untamed gorges, relatively untouched tangled grass.
Not what you'd expect from China, huh?
Not what you’d expect from China, huh?
“Not many Chinese know about this place,” the man whose tour we crashed said.  “Let alone foreigners.”
“We might let Lonely Planet know about it,” Maeva said.  The Inner Mongolia section is, after all, pretty sparse in comparison to other provinces.  And to feel the silence of a wind-rippled lake in a country where silence is a rare species, well. It’s something.
The day ended with a tiny white dog nipping at our ankles and Tour Guy asking where we were heading next.  Manzhouli was only a test run, I guess.  But we didn’t need to consult about that one.
“To Hohhot,” Maeva said.  All 2000+ km of that road.
“That’s impossible,” he said, the familiar tune coming back from our other day on the road.
“But we still want to try…”
And so the next morning, they dropped us off on the side of the road in Aershan city.  We flicked out thumbs out, I released the beacon (aka made sure my blonde hair was down and visible) and waited to see where the bend of the road would take us next.  Impossible or no.
(to be continued)