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The Tibetan eyes are crying without crying. His mother looks beyond us with a kind of disinterest, never locking my gaze. A world is in the space between us.

~~~

I hoped the plateau would go on forever, but the road turns down and snakes away into a roiling mist. Soon everything is going down: cars, trucks, the cold air of the plateau, the mist riding its back, the sun. Everything descends except the great, fat lowland clouds. Fleeing the wet heat of the jungles far below, they numbly seek an escape from their valley confines. Watching the last sliver of blue sky, I see the oblivious clouds creep coyly up to the edge of Heaven where they are summarily shattered by the Tibetan winds.

In the last town in China, the crackle of neon is washed out by the falling mist. The street is a diffuse glow, the pavement wet and glossy. The whole town teeters on the edge of the cliff, itself threatening to slide away.

~~~

The altitude, the roads, the alcohol, the heights: each a kind of exposure, each of the variety that empties hearts. I’ve already forgotten more than I remember. What came before is a blur, a wandering narrative that barely makes sense. I try to replay the emotions, but cannot. I feel nothing but drunk on oxygen. I am someone else in these moments, and I know it as if it’s the only thing that ever existed.

~~~

The young woman has not yet lost the weight of a recent pregnancy. Her face is doe-like, mouth a slight smile. A newborn suckles her naked breast, its face finding the same cavernous expression as its mother’s, one that seems to anticipate a rapture or an oblivion in every beat of its tiny heart. The mother pours tea and the great vacuum emanating from them – the radiating peace of her womanhood, the spiraling torment of their earthly bonds – gives way to the cacophony of the nearby street. I look toward the door: people on the tops of buses, a wandering Brahman bull. The hot, wet air hangs heavy with the smell of masala, incense, and excrement. In the distance, I feel India again.

~~~

~~~

Gyalzen’s body is thin and bent. He is not aged, but his form is tired and weak. The light in his eyes wavers as he speaks, his face sometimes tending toward a subliminal expression of great distance, distance of the kind that we see in only in the mask of death. He is warm when he is able, feet shuffling lightly as he prepares tea.

~~~

The great canyon runs into the distance, hiding behind nearby peaks. Each peak is a new beginning, a vantage on a valley-world whose mysteries are yet unobserved. The people are awake, carrying baskets, breaking rocks, preparing food. The crow’s deep, guttural caw is both comical and menacing. I am alone – the aloneness of all infinities – but I do not know it, and I cannot say why.

The sun is quiet at this great distance, though the sun is also sleepless. In it’s shadow, my dreams are muddled. I think I’m at home but in a place I’ve never known. A cold breeze scratches at my cheek. My eyes roll open from that strange dream-home onto the wavering grass. Its blades are speckled with tiny globes of dew, the pre-dawn glow casting a delicate light on their otherworldly interiors. My eyes close again, dreaming mind waiting for the first rays. A woman sings in an unfamiliar language.

~br

The window faces northwest and is still cold to the touch. Jagged spiderwebs of frozen moisture persist in its shaded corners despite a growing warmth, both inside and out. The dining car fills slowly as I wait for my breakfast, the train’s passengers undoubtedly not anxious to leave the comfort of their blankets. The ice crystals wither, final traces of the previous night’s rain evaporating into the great arid spaces of the Tibetan Plateau. I touch the window again, now leaving my prints in the fresh condensate of the first diners’ breath and sweat and steaming soup.

Dark harmonies played on the skies in the night. The crumpled earth south of the Taklamakan had trapped the cold and the wet. Trains sat idly on their tracks while clouds pummeled Xining with heavy rains. Alone in the station, caged by the rain, my thoughts turned to foreboding. Once again, I’d wandered down from a mountain and into the remote expanses of China’s west. A year before those places were still unimagined, but a summer of violence and ethnic unrest had shaken Xinjiang in the months come and gone.

As the stark walls of nearby buttes echoed the thunder’s chorus, the faces in the station – Han, Uighur, Tibetan, Westerner – began to seem dogged and anxious. Having traveled for many months in mainland China, I now saw the Han as a happy, open people. They are not unlike Americans in their ambitions, seemingly drawn forward by impulses that have no rational origin, that are accidents of place, time, and culture. Yet it was the ethnic markers of the Uighurs that drew my own anxiety. No longer an indication of the growing diversity of The People’s Republic, my newfound prejudice transformed them into reflections of the deepening angst of the Muslim world. Meanwhile, high on the Plateau, another tragedy waited to be scrutinized. With National Day quickly approaching, I wondered at the troubles that Han nation-building had spawned at the end of the train’s long track.

Finally the rain subsided to a drizzle and, bodies filling the berths with warmth, we set out. The track was pressed by the weight of our bodies and their carrying machine, going up toward Lhasa. I fell asleep quickly but had troubled dreams. My imagination fled west from the locomotive with the grassland beasts, hurtling itself toward a rising wall of rock and ice and, beyond that, a great vacancy of time that I could not penetrate. Along its borders the future was mute with an implicit belief that I was going to die. My tiny life-fire was at last blown to ash on a nameless peak of the sprawling Himalaya.

Now the sunlight of the Plateau fractures the bodies’ sleep and I struggle to see much beyond the frigid window. A great, rolling plain fills the horizon on all sides, frost peppering thick marshes. In the distance, the low hills are glazed with snow and painted red on their north faces by strange grasses. Here is a rippling earth, barely inhabited. These thousands of empty miles are the sky’s dominion alone.

Another train, another day. My birthday. In my berth a baby grows weary of the train’s rocking. He wears a small hat and smiles from time to time, his grip strong. A Han woman sleeps, hoping not to be awakened by the child. Her husband sniffles and so do I. My feet are cold – shoes soaked by the rains – but I don’t put on socks. The child is wrapped in a green blanket. Against my own will I look into its eyes and smile. It smiles at me. The tiny impulses in its frenetic, unstructured mind know the combination to my locks; my locks are opened. I wonder at the purpose of such things.

The old Tibetan woman, grandson under one arm, calls her daughter on a mobile phone. I marvel at the relationships that surround her, their peculiar closeness and the confines of skin, the touching of skin, her unwavering at the itch that comes with it. She shakes her sandal nervously, wondering what I’m writing. They seem a curious people, interested to know when things are hidden. She wonders what I’m listening to. She wonders about my bare feet. She does not hide it. It is a warm and open wonder, but an invasion of skin that makes me flinch. In it there is much to love, or maybe I just imagine that it’s so.

What will come in Lhasa? What will come beyond, in the places where the earth is pushed yet higher? The strange oblivion of the dream comes, perhaps, from my hesitation to do the one thing that I meant to do from the beginning: to look into the eyes of giants. Uncertainty emanates from those distant peaks, the Himalaya. Do I fear the pull of my own curiosity?

The sun is intensely bright outside. Clouds break, leaving dark trails on the grassland. Next to the track, the long road to Lhasa is heated by the sun. A caravan of trucks motors steadily on. I need to put on some socks.

~~~

I know when skin is bristling.
I know when skin is milk.
I know when hair is love.
I know when I make mistakes.

~br

Mark.

output

~br

Soaring mountains, minority peoples, yaks: all of these things are found in abundance around the tiny villages of western Sichuan province. “Tibet’s backdoor,” this is the place to go if you want to get close to The Roof of the World and its culture but can’t afford a permit. Be forewarned, though, that western Sichuan is a difficult and time-consuming place to access, as it’s virtually absent of train tracks and paved roads. What follows are some tips that I’ve compiled after a two-week trip through the region. I started in Dali, in Yunnan province, and worked my way northeast to Chengdu. Do not attempt to apply my advice to a trip in the reverse direction.

Dali vs. Lijiang

Dali and Lijiang have received substantial attention from independent travelers in recent years. Both are tourist traps of a kind, but I found Dali to be considerably less offensive than Lijiang. Old-town Lijiang was nothing more than a really Chinesey outdoor shopping mall. If you’ve spent time in Yangshuo, you’re not going to be impressed. I couldn’t stop thinking that I was at the China exhibit at Epcot Center. Dali, on the other hand, is actually a working village where normal folks – Chinese, Bai, Naxi, Tibetan, and the occasional Westerner – go about their lives. Get away from the main drag and you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse of life in charming little community. Hot tip: Ask Jia Yang for a bed at Smile Bar, then go see Adam at ClimbDali and arrange a trip to the other side of the lake. You’ll be glad you did.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Lots of independent travelers come for the trek. Having recently been in the Himalaya, I found the scenery uninspiring. TLG is no Grand Canyon, and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain doesn’t hold a candle to the Alps. It certainly didn’t help that the trek followed a set of powerlines and water pipes. Still, it was fun to get out and do some walking… and some eating. The guesthouses along the way are fun places to meet other travelers and gather your thoughts about the road ahead.

Shangri La

A bit of a border town, Zhongdian (aka “Shangri La”) has become a convenient place from which to attempt to sneak in to Tibet. It isn’t a terribly interesting urban environment, but the surrounding countryside is stunning. Bus-loads of Chinese tourists, and a fair number of Westerners, come for the Ganden Sumtseling Gompa that sits nestled in the hills outside of town. Most folks fork over 85 CNY to see the place; I went for free. How? I wasn’t interested in spending that kind of money so I went for a walk in the fields, leaving the ticket office and heading for the “Shangri La” sign on the hill. Taking lots of pictures, I climbed the ridge on the left, trying to get a good shot of Zhongdian in the distance. When I turned around, I discovered that I’d pretty much walked to the temple itself. I wandered through the alleyways of the adjacent village until I was standing under its golden eves with all the other tourists. No one ever asked for my ticket.

Shangri La to Daocheng

The scenery on this leg of the trip was absolutely stunning, and I wish that I’d hired a minivan instead of taking the bus. It would have been lovely to have stopped for some decent pictures. There’s a long – say, 25km – chain of limestone spires that, from the road, look like they’d make for some amazing new-routing.

Daocheng

This place is a bit of hole. It’s only redeeming quality is HERE Cafe, a cozy little place in the basement of a traditional Tibetan home. It’s expensive but boasts the only good coffee you’ll get until Chengdu, not to mention free Wifi and a cute owner. It’s about 50m to the left of the bus station, on the opposite side of the street. On your walk, you’ll inevitably be hassled by the local minivan drivers. They’ll want to take you to Yading or Litang. They’re a predatory bunch, but give them your 50 yuan and get out of Daocheng that same day if you can. There’s little reason to bother spending the night when more exciting destinations are only a few hours away.

Daocheng to Litang

This ride only takes three hours and has some impressive scenery. Still, the landscape’s not nearly as dramatic as what you’ve just seen on the ride from Zhongdian… that is, unless you’re a boulderer. The area around Rabbit Ears could be China’s most untapped climbing resource! Still, it’s very much at altitude and the weather is persnickety. Hopefully you’ll be luckier on that front than I was.

Litang

Charmless unless you get yourself out into the countryside. There are lots of desperate looking men standing around the main drag and few places with palatable food. It’s pretty much the epitome of a border-town. Still, you’ll definitely get the feeling that you’re in Tibetan territory.

Kangding

The bus ride down from Litang is, admittedly, painful. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with this little hole-in-the-wall city, though. Nestled in a deep river valley, the whole town is maybe only a kilometer wide and five long, so you can easily cover it in a day. While it doesn’t have much infrastructure for Western backpackers, it is pretty interesting from a sociological perspective. This is the place where Chinese and Tibetan cultures have set up their trading post. You’re definitely back in China proper, with its strip-malls and fast food joints, but there’s a striking outland population wandering around.

Chengdu

Big, hot, noisy, and… really relaxed. If you start to get sweaty, you can always head up to Emei Shan or the Four Sisters.You’ve just been out in the boonies for two weeks. Don’t you want a pizza?

The Bai women of western Yunnan are cut from the very earth. Their stars-of-twilight eyes are set against high cheekbones and taught, tan skin the likes of baked clay. They make a perfect prayer to the sun, having worked countless hours under its relentlessness. In their traditional hats of crackling white and pink, their sapphire petticoats, they are art at labor. Both steely and quick to smile, everything about the Bai woman is dignified; absent is the lostness that swells in the throats of so many other indigenous peoples.

The massive lake adjacent Dali echoes the sky. Low mountains that ramble up from its western shores seem imposing from a distance, but in the sunset they are revealed to be infants playing at kings and queens. Their playhouse dominion is a small walled city of cobbled lanes, failing stone houses, willows, pomegranates, and Bai women at market. The air is cool but for the hard sun, and it rained for hours last night. The skin of a cow lay on the flagstone in front of a market shop this morning. The tiny street dogs remind me of someone I loved once.

Adam is married to a stunning Chinese woman called Colleen. They are expecting a child, and she radiates. Superstitious, she’ll avoid cold water after the child is born. They’ve just returned home to Dali from Yangshuo, where we met, and the States before that. Happy to play hosts, they took us to the other side of the lake for two days, to a small Bai village where cactus grows on the dry hillsides above lush farmland. There, on the shores of the lake, is an ornate guesthouse in whose open courtyards swam the smells of a busy Bai kitchen. We passed a quiet night at the water’s edge, lulled by the lapping water and the sounds of the local fishermen hauling whitebait.

The southern jungles have fallen away behind me; icy peaks are a promise now. In a few days, a great swath of land forced up by the Tibetan Plateau will blot out the sky. Dali is my jumping-off point for a journey into remote Sichuan, and by-and-by, Tibet. Days and days on buses, valley villages, and towering rock lay ahead. The Himalaya are out there, across a great, dry distance. I’m already haunted by curious dreams, a product of the thinning air. Sometimes they push through the veil into my waking hours, and I imagine the pause in your eyes as I start to say something miraculous but then forget what it was.

~br

The old man gave us, in the Queen’s English, a brief history of Vang Vieng: “At first there was nothing here. Then at some point in the 1980s somebody wrote in one of these travel guides that you could come to Vang Vieng and smoke opium. That was not true, but when enough Westerners came looking for it, it became true right away.” A long lasting, anything-goes reputation continues to make the haphazard little town a boozing hole of great renown amongst white kids on parade in SE Asia. Of course, the Lao government couldn’t legitimately allow the impressionable youths of the world unfettered access to psychoactive substances on its soil. Instead, the Laos of the new millennium offers us cheap alcohol, Friends, and tubing. For some reason we’re content with that.

We arrived in Vang Vieng at the start of the Lao new year, Pii Mai. This period is marked by three days of festivities, and by “festivities” here I mean karaoke and water-splashing. Water-splashing? Yes, water-splashing. Where the Western world marks its new year with alcohol poisoning and casual sex, the Lao people prefer to throw water at each other. It’s just about the cutest thing ever, and not the least bit raunchy. Entire families stand by the roadside, dancing away to Thai-pop and tossing water at everyone who comes by. Little kids hover on the curbs with squirt guns. Dads shower the pavement with water hoses from lawn chairs near the grill. And in Vang Vieng, obnoxious white people take the opportunity to act like it’s their new year, too.

The goal was to go climbing, but Ruthie and I spent the better part of a week crawling through the dense underbrush along the river. The crags were supposed to be in there, somewhere. We found them eventually, but not before getting scratched, poked, cut, stung, and bit into utter despair. Fortunately, the only thing more plentiful in the underbrush near the river than mosquitoes and nettles is bars. Recall: tubing. This isn’t a life-jackets-and-white-water kind of affair. Think “booze cruise.” And while I was glad to be able to have a beer at the end of a long day of pointless bushwhacking, the scene on the river was just a little too surreal. It’s disconcerting to walk through a tiny village of subsistence farmers, to cross a bamboo bridge built by their careful hands, to look down and see a drunk Brit in a bikini passed out on an inner tube just below. Then again, maybe it would make sense if I were twenty-two and in the river.

~br

There’s a thunderstorm to the south and the skies are going dark. Intermittent rumbles wander up the river. The winking lights on the other bank are another country. The river is the Mekong, the watery eye of Southeast Asia, having spilled down from its headwaters deep in mountainous China. This land was built on its spoils, and many kingdoms have flourished and decayed under its gaze. The culture of this place, of all the places for hundreds and hundreds of miles, are linked to it inexorably. They are merely fish.

I’ve come to another border, the border between Thailand and Laos, but it’s like many of the others that I’ve crossed in recent months. When borders are wide rivers between rice plains the crossing is at once more satisfying and less dramatic than when they’re high peaks between alpine valleys. In my mind, the river is the perfect, benign boundary. The people will be much the same in Laos as they were in Thailand, separated only by that fine thread of water, that prophet of seas, coffer of kingdoms. Their competing destinies are shaped by the politics of their boundaries and the cohesion of their tribes, but their faces will slowly take on the same aspects until I’m no longer sure which was which.

~br

Wearing a shirt feels weird. I’ve had one on, consistently, for at least a week now and still. Having recently had the opportunity to reconsider my position on shirts, I think I’ve accepted my childhood intuition about them as inspired wisdom: they’re pointless and annoying. On the night bus from Krabi to Bangkok I was even thinking about trying to do the rest of southeast Asia shirtless. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea until about half way through the in-flight movie, Michael Bay’s The Island. Ewan and ScoJo were running around in the desert wearing full track suits. All I could think about was how much better off they’d be if they were shirtless, and how much better off I was because I was shirtless. Then it occurred to me that I was the only one on the bus that wasn’t wearing a shirt. That made me feel like a crazy person.

Shirts were totally out on Tonsai, and I didn’t put one on the entire time I was there. I carried one around occasionally to swat at mosquitoes, but that was the closest I got. Eating dinner shirtless was especially awesome when it was someplace a little posh, like the fish grill down near the beach. This got me thinking about how much fun it would be if shirtlessness became a general fashion trend, and you saw the fashionistas in Williamsburg eating dinner in their nose-bleed hep bistros without shirts on. Oh, to be the guy that started that one! It would be hard, though. Even if you were doing it just to screw with them, just to hack their backwards little fashion culture, you’d have to have some real big cojones. You’d look like a crazy person, and the effort would probably turn you into one.

Anyway, going shirtless in Bangkok seemed unacceptable despite the fact that the heat there was sickening. The town is just too fashion conscious, a fact that is evident from five or six towering cathedrals of high-end consumerism that dominate the skyline in the middle of town. I’m sure there are things that one is supposed to do in Bangkok, like take in the Buddhist temples or whatever. All I wanted to do after six weeks on Tonsai Beach, though, was sit in the artificially crisp air of a shopping mall and eat sushi. Except for running a few errands, that’s exactly what I did.

Still, Bangkok can wear on you pretty quickly if you’re not adjusted to an urban environment. The place is a big, slick metropolis on the scale of a Chicago or San Francisco. The population is distinctly Asian, but there are still lots of honkeys around. Khao San Road, the backpacker district, is rife with the kind of holiday-at-the-cost-of-dignity tourism that I’ve spent several months successfully avoiding. So, after just two days of bangkockery (the river taxi was the best part) our little Vietnam Fellowship – the only three still in Asia, really: Ruthie, Owen, and I; Melbo’s in another world – set out for Chiang Mai in the north of the country. We arrived after a dismal night on the bus only to be separated by some evil-doing taxi men. Reunited, we’ve gone on to find a wonderfully sweet, laid-back city with some excellent climbing (still on limestone) and a number of familiar faces. Half the climbers on Tonsai are here, it seems.

The other half are likely on their way to Yangshuo, China, which is where I’ll probably find myself in a month. Owen is due in New Zealand shortly and Ruthie goes back to London a few weeks thereafter. Everybody else has scattered, many having returned to their lives. Soon, I’ll have neither a travel buddy nor a climbing partner unless something dramatic happens. The idea of taking on Sichuan and Tibet alone is a bit daunting. (Idea: get my haul bag some clothes, start treating it a little better, and maybe it will come around.) Still, I look forward to solo travel as a challenge, an opportunity test the scope of my control, to have some unplanned adventures.

In the meantime, I have something much more mundane to keep me occupied. I was wrong to think that I could escape the crush of modern life by running off to Asia. The IRS calls, even here. I’ll spend the next few days drinking overpriced coffee and trying to pull together my taxes from right here in Chiang Mai. Ah, the marvels of the Internet age! Let’s hope they bring me a nice return. I haven’t had a lick of income in months – didn’t qualify for unemployment – so they better! Question: Is it right to claim that I’m “out of work” even though I gave my corporate job the finger and turned climbing bum in a tropical paradise?

~br

I’ve had six very busy weeks since leaving Cat Ba Island. I spent four of them in Vietnam, seeing all and everything, from cities to pristine beaches to dark tracts of jungle. Details are forthcoming (expect back-dated posts to appear here) but the verdict is that Vietnam is one of my favorite places in the world. I was sad to leave. In the middle of February I started a transit – a five-day sprint, really – through Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand, and then on to Tonsai Beach on the Pranang Peninsula. My arrival in Tonsai was a bit of a homecoming; a friend from the States was in tow and the HotRock crew was waiting for us when we stepped off the boat. We all spent a week together, climbing and generally enjoying our final days as a rag-tag family, before the group disbanded. Some folks have gone on with HotRock to the official exit point in Singapore, but just as many have stayed here in Tonsai.

The peninsula is stunning. Thin strips of beach give way to a groves of palms that climb to the base of soaring limestone cliffs. Jungle hangs from everything, and langars hang from the jungle. It’s a climber’s paradise, the most talked-about destination in Asia, a place that would take a lifetime of climbing to exhaust. Each year thousands of us come to spend a few weeks here in the tiny valley between the karsts and the sea. Many go on to places like Cat Ba, Yangshuo, or Hampi. Just as many stay the entire winter, making tidy homes of the thatch huts amongst the palms. On rest days we lounge by the beach, sip from coconuts, paddle the Andaman Sea, or just enjoy the Thai hospitality. The climbing lifestyle has no better home in the world than Tonsai Beach.

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  1. Never trust the maps in a Lonely Planet.
  2. Turn around when the pavement ends. It is not going to pick up again on the other side of the hill.
  3. Always take a rain jacket.
  4. Definitely turn around when the locals start looking at you like you’re the only Westerner they’ve ever seen. You’ll know the look.
  5. Once you’ve seen The Look, make sure you stop for gas.
  6. Do not follow the motorbike tracks into the jungle just because they’re there.
  7. When you point at the motorbike track in the jungle and ask “Krong No?” and the locals respond “Yes,” that does not mean that following the track will get you to Krong No. Locals simply like to answer in the affirmative because “Yes” is often the only English they know.
  8. Absolutely, positively turn around when your motorbike’s brakes seize up. This is a sign from God that you should not be going down that motorbike track in the jungle.
  9. When the locals stop waving back it is because they do not want to be associated, in a karmic sense, with dead Westerners.
  10. Remember that the only thing worse than a Third World motorbike epic is a Third World motorbike epic in the dark.

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