Into the North

Dongbei. 东北。In Chinese this means “The Northeast,” but it carries with it a whole host of connotations. It’s the place where the people are hardened from tough winters, where “bottoms up” really means you will finish whatever’s in your glass, and where the thick curled Chinese accent emerges. People from Dongbei I’m told rarely leave Dongbei and miss it whenever they do.

“Hangzhou’s too hot,” a taxi driver told me on the way from a train station.

“Yeah, but you went there in the summer,” I said. “Try the fall or the spring.”

He shook his head. “Too hot. Dongbei is better.”

Dongbei food is heavy, with meat and potatoes. Dumplings are everywhere.

I couldn’t wait.

Since this is my last big trip in China, I’m trying to give it the theme of “Hannah’s Believe it or Not” by seeking out unusual things. There is red seaweed, UFO sightings, chocolate dumplings, hotels built like castles. But more than that, there’s me, the person reading ghost stories on the train heading north, who leans into the window as heavy fog (and yes, I’m sure it was fog) shrouds the buildings and trees in dark gloom, who writes ghost stories as the lights go out.

Dongbei is where the wind howls. And in the North, I howl back.

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Hannah in the Attic

The sun drifted in through the triangular window of the attic as I pieced together the interview with Kaitlin Solimine (see previous post). I’d chosen to stay in the tatami room in a guest house with other writers for a couple days as we retreated from city life and let the quiet canal lanes accompany our work.

You could say its luck, you could say it’s my insistence on putting myself out there, but I’ve had the great fortune of getting to know artists through the Shanghai Literary Review. It started with a translation I did back in the summer, and became a doorway into a welcoming community of thinkers and doers. We’d sit around the dinner table every evening and have long, winding conversations about everything: optimization, the existence of ghosts, the history of fashion.

Down the lane, the touristy area of the canal, complete with coffee shops and neon purple lights in the evening. I walked through it only briefly, the sudden press of people around me a shock to the system after such calm and quiet. I’d eagerly return to the house, looking out on the garden below from above.

Honestly when I think back to that house along the canal, I’ll think of those sunlit hours in the quiet of my little tatami room. The slanted ceiling, the low table, the tiny wooden tables out on the small balcony, the comfy chair propped up by the orange lamps on the floor.

There, I could be a Hannah in the attic, a creature best left undisturbed, but who would venture out when the time is right.

Last Stops

All right, so my last big trip is coming up. Where will I be going this time? To China’s northeast (dong bei) region, hopefully in time to catch some fall foliage!

I will say that there are some marked changes between this trip and the last. One being TRANSPORTATION. Remember how in Qinghai, there were vast stretches of uninhabited land that was virtually inaccessible? Not so with China’s east coast! I was checking train tickets, and assumed that they would be slow ones that took well over 20 hours. But…surprise! There’s a high-speed train that gets there in 8. Just…high speed trains. Everywhere. The other, more subtle difference, is that I’m personally more restricted by budget and time. Much of this is because I’m a student, and so most of the trips I’ve taken in the past 2 years have had to undergo some creative gymnastics to even happen, such as volunteering in certain areas for a stretch of time. This time, I’ve been pretty choosey about what I’m seeing, and have definitely picked up some spare work to raise up some funds for what I assume will be an ungodly amount of dumplings. (Those files may have taken me a full week to translate, but it’s all for you, 饺子!)

But that’s not why you’re reading this. The real point: just where will I be going?

Like my trip in the summer, I’ll be starting with the Shanghai Literary Review people (who probably think I travel all the time now). For China’s National Holiday week, they’ve rented a villa in the water town, Zhujiajiao, to have a writing retreat. There will be activities, writing, and probably some BBQ. I’m not actually staying the full week with them, but for the last couple of days.

After that, I hop on a train and head to Panjin, Liaoning province, which is where seaweed grows red in their wetlands area. I’m coming at the tail end of the season, but have heard that the colors are at their best near the end. It’s always possible that I’ve miscalculated, which happens, but the wetlands sound nice anyway. Once in Liaoning, I’ll hop on over to Dalian, which is a big sea-side city that I’ve only ever heard people gush on and on about. I don’t think I even know what makes it special. I’ve read that people have seen UFOs, floating cities, and glowing beaches, but I’m guessing they were referring to the seafood.

Once out of Dalian, I’ll then go to Jilin. Now, initially, I planned on going to Changbaishan, which is a gorgeous ecological nature spot. It has a dormant volcanic crater lake on top of a mountain, which also serves as a border between China and North Korea. Plans have changed (and you can probably guess why). While I’d never planned on actually going to the border between the countries, given the recent political climate, I think I’ll just stay far, far away. Oh, and also because the recent nuclear missile tests out of North Korea have triggered seismic activity around the mountain, and some even say the volcano could erupt again. If you just read that last sentence and thought “Holy shit,” buddy I’m with you. (Also, fun fact: there’s a bunch of lore about a loch ness esque monster inside of the volcano…metaphor for North Korea? Let’s hope not). The likelihood of any of those doomsday scenarios happening? Pretty low. But, there’s no reason to tempt fate.

Luckily, Jilin is a big province, and so I can go there without being in close proximity to the world’s most insane country right now. (Seriously, Mom, don’t worry! So long as I’m well within Chinese borders, there’s no safer place in the world than China when it comes to NK). Sadly, the biggest and best thing to see in the province is FOR SURE Changbaishan, but I’ll also check out Jilin’s meteorite museum, go to some national parks to catch the red leaves, and (you guessed it) eat lots of NE food. Best part? There’s actually another lake with a loch ness esque monster allegedly inside. I’m starting to think the NE is totally bonkers.

I’ll finish out my trip by going to the end of the Great Wall, which tapers out into the sea. A perfect spot for brooding, and also to end what has been a wild ride of traveling in China!

Stay tuned for more info as the trip unfolds. And, if you want to know more about specifically traveling in China, you can check out my other blog here. It’s both in Chinese and English, and is all about China travel (as the name suggests).

Circular Motion: Finale

I began this trip in Shanghai for the Shanghai Literary Review launch party, and went on the road with good feelings and a bouquet of flowers. Since then, I’ve left the bouquet of flowers at the base of Mount Everest, and am returning back the way I came to Hangzhou.


Things have gone full circle it would seem, in a trip full of circuits, koras, and circular motion. The spinning prayer wheels, koras around holy places, the mandala that depict the path to immortality, and yes even the Ferris wheel. Here, a circle is a sacred path, and one I was happy to take.

Which is why on my last full day in Lhasa, I decided to make as many circles as possible, starting with the kora around Potala Palace.
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The palace is a very central part of Lhasa, and is completely circumferenced by prayer wheels, save for its front side which faces a public square. I joined in the foot traffic, and spun every prayer wheel as we went around. Some were as large as a room, some big enough to have a railing along the bottom, and most small enough for a deft push to keep it spinning.

Though it sounds easy enough, after a while my arm hurt, and my fingernails caught on the polished wood handle on the bottom, and I felt as though I was actively making callouses. But by the end, I also felt as though I was marching to a new beat than before.
I did this circuit only once, deciding to save a full three circuit trip for Jokhang Temple that evening, when the most people would be walking, and when the believers would prostrate their ways around the temple, bowing all the way to the ground every few steps.


I am a hopeless romantic (in the transcendental sense) and found myself spinning an object in my hand as I walked that holy kora. Those prostrating bent over onto wooden slats on their hands, and it was like wave after wave upon the sand.

In this atmosphere, I decided to take out the white prayer scarf I was greeted with on my first day of the trip. It was a welcoming gesture, and though the scarf was pretty, I also felt it belonged in Tibet. After three circles around the temple, I tied my prayer scarf next to others, and I sat on the warm concrete, watching birds swirl above and listening to passersby muttering their mantras.

Even as I write this, I’m already back in Hangzhou, jumping back into a very different lifestyle — one that probably doesn’t have as much room for romantic wanderings. My phone has gone from the sparse 3G available on the Tibetan Plateau, to a full, nonstop 4G and internet connection. In a series of public transit card switches, I’m back in the groove of Hangzhou, and am unpacking all that I’ve brought back from the road.

But I like to think that the revolutions that were set in motion, the centrifugal force of all these circles will carry their ways into my life and beyond. I like to think that I’ll keep spinning and circling long after this trip and that, like the flowers and the scarf, I won’t need to carry so much with me and can leave it fluttering in the wind, kissing the clouds.

To Kiss the Clouds

I was warned that I might not actually see Mount Everest, because it’s the rainy season in Tibet, and nature is fickle. But seeing it or not, I was still determined to make the journey there. I wanted to feel what it was like to stand on the rooftop of the world, and was not that hung up on snapping the perfect photo.

At this point in the trip, I was the only traveler, the other two in my group not having signed up to see Everest. We left Shigatse and wove into the barren wasteland that is the Himalayas. At times, I got glimpses of snow-capped mountains, and at others, cloud-drenched rock. WeChat Image_20170723175107We entered what I like to call “The Road of Insanity” because it’s a very rough, relentless dirt road that lasts for several hours. Dust billowed in the sky, at times twirling into dust devils or cloaking the other cars altogether. Desert sand lumped into moguls. Blunt rock jabbed out of the earth. Still, we climbed.

I got my first glimpse of Mount Everest after we had snaked our ways up a sloping mountain, and after we’d passed striated, almost lava-like cliffs that I was told were the tectonic plates pressing together. We stopped at the top, and embedded in clouds, I saw the base of the world’s tallest mountain. WeChat Image_20170723175245I thought the elevation would go down from there, but after we went down the mountain slope, we entered the valley of giants, in which we were surrounded by snow caps and my ears popped every three seconds from their sheer height. The rock turned grey, barren. And in the midst of this massive display of stone, Everest Base Camp appeared as a collection of large black tents.

We took a bus to an outlook for Mount Everest, with workers toting oxygen bottles in every other seat. The mountain’s peak poked through the top and within its white cloak, it lay in wait.

But I hadn’t come to Mount Everest to just look at it and call it a day. If I had, I would be quite disappointed and deemed the trip ruined because of clouds.

It’s a queer thing climbing in the clouds, though, which I experienced the next morning hiking the distance we’d covered by bus the previous night. You don’t realize you’re inside of a cloud because no matter the altitude, you always think the clouds are higher. But out here, we met the clouds face to face, and as I walked the slow, breathless walk to the outlook, I could feel the clouds on my lips like mist.

I couldn’t see Mount Everest that morning, but I could feel it all around me. It was in the stones I walked upon (and yes it counts: I hiked on Mount Everest), it was in the air I breathed, and most of all, it was in the clouds I kissed as I went to greet it face to face.

 

Will you dance?

She was a slight Tibetan woman in charge of the tent at the Everest Base Camp where I and some other Chinese guests were staying that night. She kept the stove in the middle of the tent stoked and occasionally pattered into the other room (it was a big tent) to get more water and food when ordered.

I mostly stayed out of her way and chatted with the tent mates and my guide, Tashi, but as the evening progressed one of the Chinese guests addressed her.

“So, you’re Tibetan. Do you have any songs? Will you sing? Or will you dance for us or something?”

And then this quiet woman, without even looking up from the stove she was tending, said “Um, no. How about you dance?”

What could he say? He didn’t want to dance, either.

And with that single line, the Tibetan woman left, having gained so much more than the money from the guests.

 

Hannah in Tibetan

According to Tashi, Tibetan names are given by Lamas or Abbots in the local village, and are usually chosen because of their meaning. His name “Tashi Dawa” means something like good fortune, and the “Tashi” part came from an Abbot.

“So, does Hannah mean anything in Tibetan?”

He thought about it and spoke in rapid Tibetan with the driver.

“Yes, okay, Hannah means something. In the wild, after the lions have eaten and it comes.”

“Oh?” I said, imagining something abstract, like an overwhelming sense of desolation or remorse.

“Yes, and you know it comes and eats the body and flies away.”

“Wait,” I said. “Are you talking about vultures?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Hannah means vulture in Tibetan? Oh god.”

And so, while Hannah in English means “grace” and Hannah in Korean means smelling nice, Hannah in Tibetan means the animal that eats animal carcasses and flies away with grim satisfaction.

Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not Tibetan.