Toward an Ethnographic Self


The following is an experimental sensory-poetic ethnographic form that takes the idea of reflexivity as its starting point. Here my short stories and poetry, written both while in China and the United States, are interspersed among ethnographic moments from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Here the self that is engaged in the representation of a place commingles with the self that is engaged in understanding the notion of love. Here multiple approaches to writing, and multiple expressions of the writer, intermix.

The underlying premise is that willful interjections of the self into ethnography, of emplacing the ‘scholar’ within the ‘field,’ while productive, are incomplete representations of the thing called the self. The self as it emerges in the process of writing about other selves and places is a particular self, one that still maintains its academic posture even when it attempts to do a non-scientific thing.

The person you are when you aren’t in the field, the writer you are writing when you aren’t writing about the field, or things academic, is fundamentally attached to that other thing, the finished ethnography. This then is a picture of a place that brings into conversation other places, other thoughts, and forms of expression, as a means of refracting more precision on the way the place as it is represented came to be what it was here.

Beijing to Buzkashi

2 February 2015

Trees of Eden

15 November 2014

Looking through the train window, he noticed a blur of fall color. The whirr of branches and leaves pulled in his gaze, and he slipped into a trance of yellow and orange. After several lost minutes, he realized that the sweep of the passing bouquet had stifled his ability to make out any of the individual trees that, collected together, called out to his spellbound eyes. So he leaned forward, picking out one tree on the horizon and tracing it with his eyes as it traveled along the length of the window frame. This way, he could see how the bark was a rugged cream color on one tree and a dark grey on another; how what looked like an old oak had pale green lichen draped over its torso; how a sapling of some species he couldn’t identify had decaying leaves that refused to fall off.

And then he thought that love is like a forest as a train rolls by. He felt regret that there were so many trees in a forest—trees that, had they been in his back yard, would have been affectionately ingrained in his memory. But these trees were not loved, not known. They just sat there, on the side of the tracks, and waited patiently to die—their existence meaning nothing to no-one. Perhaps one day they would be made into paper, and someone would write something down on what was left of them, and maybe, just maybe, that something would be important.

Love was like the trees that nobody came to look at. Love was mere chance; luck. Love was the way you would be forced to focus on one tree because the whole array of colors was too overwhelming for your senses. Love was the way you couldn’t focus on reading Nietzsche because that woman in the pink blouse to your right was telling her friend Carl about how her daughter Samantha had failed her Chemistry test.

There were countless other trees, other people out there that you would never meet; the fact that you chose this one to pay attention to—to love—was meaningless and random and stupid.

Love was like life, and life was like the shadows that moved around among the gaps in the trees of a forest that nobody came to look at.

Reflections on Sayram

19 July 2016

Each summer, Han families with new cars and expensive cameras travel to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for a momentary taste of its scenic grasslands and nomadic peoples. Within this collective exercise, avatars of vast discrepancies in resources and opportunities are brought directly to the grassland. At Sayram Lake, a crystalline blue alpine wilderness-come-tourist-park, many young Kazakhs spend their summer days in a dusty parking lot that abuts a glistening highway. Their task is twofold: convince passers-by to hand over cash for a photo on horseback, and wrangle whichever tourists might be lingering for the evening into a stay at their family’s yurt.

After a successful day in which he convinced a van-full of Han tourists from the eastern metropole of Wuhan to purchase an entire roasted sheep, Murat tells me a fantastical story. He is slightly drunk, having been invited to imbibe in the gratuitous libation-display that his guests take as an indispensable part of their tour through the western regions. The story begins. An emaciated but spunky Kazakh-Chinese girl of thirteen stands in a dusty August parking lot alongside an alpine grassland in northwestern-most China. Intermittently, Han-Chinese tourists pull off of the highway, electing to stay the night in a traditional nomadic yurt.

In recent years, domestic Chinese tourists have started flocking to Sayram. Sensing the commercial opportunity therein, a group of Hui-Chinese, a sedentary Muslim ethnic minority group, have begun renting yurts and horses from the local Kazakh herders, dressing in traditional Kazakh garb in order to feign nomadic heritage. Performances abound: the Hui perform Kazakh identity for the Han, and the Kazakhs perform ethnic solidarity with the Hui.

But opportunities for commerce have expanded, and entrepreneurial Kazakh families now send their children to the parking lot to cash in while they tend to their herds. One girl is particularly charismatic, and she has been stealing clientele from the Hui over the last two months. One day, a group of frustrated Hui men beat her and her brother. News travels back to the yurts, and her father spends the afternoon riding frantically across the grassland, shouting an ethnically charged Kazakh battle cry to every encampment he can reach, calling his brothers to arms.

As the sun fades west, nearly 100 Kazakh horsemen descend upon the parking lot, beating the Hui pretenders senseless. By morning, a battalion of Chinese police arrive in trucks, and the prefecture’s leading Communist Party official orders all Kazakhs in the vicinity to leave the lake pastures and permanently settle in a town down the valley.

Most of the Kazakhs reluctantly agree; they are outmanned and outgunned. As they begin to pack their belongings, one man, the father of that spirited young girl, begins shouting that the Chinese will never take him off this land; that this grassland is where he was born, and where he will die. A commotion ensues; in a rage, he pours gasoline across his family yurt, and then orders his wife and daughter and two sons inside. He lights the yurt ablaze, rushes inside, and barricades the entrance.

The policemen scramble around the yurt trying in vain to put out the inferno; ultimately they break through the entrance and pull everyone out. Aghast, the local official changes his mind: the Kazakhs may stay, and the Hui are forced to leave. “And so today, there are no Hui here, and the Chinese tourists are ours,” Murat concludes.

The actors in the story are undoubtedly real, but the scope of the events and the radical denouement seem to border on myth. The question of the tale’s verisimilitude is important, but of greater significance is the function of the story. In its telling and retelling, it is an act of placemaking—of making heroic the place of the transhumant within a region marked by an increasingly pronounced Han Chinese presence, and of giving agency to their ethnic group in triumphing over one other non-Kazakh contingent within that nation, the Hui.


An Afternoon at the Fogg Museum

23 February 2014

Measured footsteps echo across the grand hall

As polite patrons whisper interpretations

Standing at delicate distance from oil-stained canvases.

In the restroom, urine stains the slate floor,

And somebody forgot to lift the seat.

A Kazakh Lakesong

30 September 2016

John Wayne and China

19 May 2012

I used to watch a lot of Westerns as a child. As a six-year-old living in the Connecticut suburbs, I remember being captivated by the alluring, foreign world on screen—the land of gunfights and watering holes—that microcosm in which virtuous souls stood transfixed in an eternal battle with outlaws wearing black bandanas. The perils and customs of that open Western landscape were so different from my own fenced-in New England existence that, in essence, I had to learn a new language—to try and intuit, in the midst of a film, what was really happening on screen.

I remember being very confused about the concern many cowboys had with getting shot in the back. Why was it taken for granted to be a worse death than being shot in the front? Grasping for clarity, I concluded that being shot in the back must be more painful than being shot in the chest. In this way, I would form my own naïve notions about what was happening in the world out there, determining with my best guess the laws of that great Romantic world where John Wayne would ride for days across an open sea of stars and sunsets, passing wild horses that pummeled the earth with their native simplicity—running and flowing across the rugged yet nascent canvas like John Wayne; free.

The end result was that I began to feel like I was a part of a place that I still didn’t really understand. I experience this today, as a twenty-two-year-old living in China. Every day, I step outside of my apartment and find myself utilizing that familiar skill: interpreting the world around me. It is a rush; it is a rush that no longer excites me simply in terms of understanding the plot of a story or the reasons for one hero’s actions; rather, it fulfills me on a newfound, intellectual level—one that was never present in my early days with John Wayne. Every day, I see something new; every day, Chinese horses thunder along the avenues of my synapses and fire newfound cultural secrets and notions onto the forefront of my windswept, always roaming brain.

Of course, it is only retrospectively that I am capable of recognizing my youthful misconceptions. Upon an older—more rational—inquiry, it turns out that I was wrong about being shot in the back. It isn’t more painful; rather, it is more disgraceful. It means that you didn’t go out fighting, didn’t fulfill your Homeric honor-duty to the gods of the Old Prairie.

Which means that I’m wrong about many things happening around me in China, too. I’m older; I possess more knowledge; I know that being shot in the back is, in utilitarian terms, no worse than being shot in the front; in short, I know a lot of things. But to fully understand a culture—its multivariable nuances and complexities—you can’t merely rely on that same spirit of discovery you cherished as a boy. That’s just not feasible.

Efficacious or not, I wouldn’t trade my suppositions about life in China for anything. It seems that I prefer the unknown—the guessed, the intangible—to any precise understanding. The colors of the prairie—lambent greens and hot, flowing stones of red—linger in my memory: infinite, and beautiful. I call them to me; I ask nothing of them; I care not for their accuracy; and, in turn, they fuel my infantine soul.

Reflections on Sayram

08 August 2015

On my second afternoon in Sayram I meandered my way through the main parking lot that stands between the crater lake and Xinjiang’s major highway, the G30. This impressive road is the conduit that drives summer travel between Xinjiang’s northern cities, specifically Urumqi and Yili.

Every minute or so I was approached by a Kazakh on horseback asking if I wanted to 骑马照个相 (have a photo taken on horseback), for just a small fee of 10RMB ($1.50). Where most of these Kazakhs’ (ranging in age from 8-40) forebears would have spent their afternoons herding or helping with housework, most of this generation in places like Sayram spends its summer days in tourist lots like this one, working from 10AM to 9PM. According to a rough estimate, the average daily take-in can range from 100-300 RMB, all of which goes to the family.

The effervescent girl pictured in these photos is eight years old. She is incredibly charming and thus persuasive. Each morning she goes to 干活 (work) and only comes back as the sun begins to set. She asked me what life was like in America, and then followed up her question by asking if I’d heard that America was helping Japan’s military.

“Japan is our enemy,” she said with the confidence of a diplomat.

Surprised that a Kazakh girl reared in the middle of nowhere in China hated a country that had never inflicted any direct harm on the Kazakh people, I asked why she hated Japan.

“Of course we hate Japan. Have you heard about what they did to our country? Haven’t you heard of the Nanjing Massacre?”

But that was a long time ago, I countered.

“Japanese people are evil. Have you seen the movie _____?”

Suddenly it all made sense. In this China, all you need is a television and you have access to the hundreds of 抗日 (Anti-Japanese) films that are broadcast daily on every province’s network in every minority language of the PRC, Kazakh included.

“So you learned about Japan from movies?”

“No, not just from movies but from history books too. We read about it in school– what they did is a fact,” she countered, confident of the foundations upon which her bias was based.

If there is any indicator of the extent to which many minorities in China have adopted the Chinese nation as their mother, it is moments like these. To hate the Japanese for what they did to the Han people is to show your communal bonds with a group of people simply connected to you because you both partake in the same national heritage. While of course it is also a reflection of basic human empathy– these bad people did bad things to good people and I hate them for that– the difference lies in the intangible subtle way that this animus was expressed: “they did these things to US” to “OUR country.”

The reach of this animus is not limited to this younger, more intellectually pliable generation. My Kazakh friend’s mother, in her 50s, also hates Japan. She also has watched countless 抗日 films. The only difference lies in the extent to which each group has been educated. My friend’s mother didn’t receive an education, so her antipathy toward Japan stems solely from the films she has seen and the propaganda that has been broadcast in her lifetime. These are not vague, hollow processes but robust, corporeal forces.

Water and Tea

14 June 2012

It was a blur.

It was a blur that reached out onto our restaurant table and wove itself into the napkins and our glasses of tea and water. It was very clear.

It was very clear that this blur that existed in the space between our sips of water and our vocal chords was what I had tasted on many occasions. I wondered if its opacity was mutually transparent.

I smiled. We’d been friends for the year, my year in China. We’d been friends for this, my first year in China—abroad—and we went to meals together once or twice a week. In typical Chinese fashion, we alternated between who treated whom to dinner. This time it was my treat. The last time it had been his.

We were friends for the extent of a year. A year was a long time. We knew each other well, and this was my treat.

I was not merely taking my friend out to eat spicy chicken with noodles (the chicken came on a big plate with flat white noodles); thestakes were higher: I was taking the possibility for interconnectedness between people from disparate cultures out to dinner as well.

I sat there awkwardly and consumed this heavy serving of clarity—that we had had so many dinners like this very one and that our meals had always come with a side order of the same, dull dinner-table conversations. And then I wanted to leave the table, wanted to escape the haze of in-between and its rich hoisin (hoisinreally? was it?) sauce. It was a dark brown; it was a bright red; it was spicy.

It was spicy and it stung my nose and confused me. It was dark and rich and beautiful indescribable and yet here it was, asking me to describe it.

The best I could do was to say that we weren’t friends—that our year together had been spent playing with our forks, gently pushing the food around our plates without really knowing what it was or why we continued eating it. We were posturing at being full.

And then it appeared that we had continued eating it because we believed that eventually the cultural issues would break away and we would find each other truly interesting. So I kept asking him to lunch, or dinner. We continued eating that chicken with wide noodles and the rich hoisin sauce because there was nothing else to do; because we had forgotten how to order anything else; because Will the intercultural interloper was looking for some savory dish of an experience to bring home with him after his year abroad and serve piping hot to my friends and family and potential colleagues. Internationalism was social currency.

I took another bite; the dish was cold. We put our napkins down, said our goodbyes, and went to our separate apartments where we would listen to different music sung in tones that were linguistically comprehensible but emotionally unintelligible.

We walked out, leaving behind the tea in our glasses; it tasted like water but called itself tea.

Reflections on Sayram

09 August 2015

I spent much of the morning and afternoon of my third day in Sayram assiduously acquiring a sunburn as I sat and read Tolstoy outside of Murat’s family yurt. The extent of this sunburn owes itself to two facts peculiar to my present situation in China. Proximately, I was sitting under the sun at an altitude of 2000 meters. More generally, I spent the last eight weeks in a Beijing that provided, gratis, ample UV protection on the few occasions in which I actually spent protracted amounts of time outdoors. In addition, Tolstoy has a knack for plot; thus I was wholly doomed to be burned.

In the late afternoon I wandered down to the parking lot to observe the rapport between tourists and locals. In part to avoid the sun and dust that was being kicked up by cars that sped through the dirt and gravel lot, I ducked into Sayram’s sole convenience shop to buy a bottle of water. I began chatting with the Kazakh shopkeeper, a pleasant man in his late 60s, when suddenly I was approached by a Han tourist in his 40s.

He interjected his way into my conversation with the shopkeeper by speaking a few phrases of what sounded like perfect Russian. He smiled confidently, clearly expecting that I would be impressed with his ability to communicate in what he had assumed was my native language.

“I’m American,” I told him in Chinese.

We exchanged a few meaningless remarks, and he walked off. I began again to speak with the shopkeeper about how his business had changed over the years. Less than two minutes after he’d initially walked off, the Russian speaker returned to the shop and looked at me with an expression playful yet austere.

“Let me tell you something: what you only have to think about once before comprehending–” he paused, pointing to the Kazakh shopkeeper, “–these people can think about a thousand times and they still won’t get it. Remember that.”

He turned abruptly and walked off. I looked at the shopkeeper; he smiled awkwardly and shrugged his shoulders. We continued talking for a few more minutes, after which point I returned to the sun and the swarm of tourists. It was there that I found Nalatar, the grandson of my host family.

While I was mostly just interested in taking photos of he and his uncle, his uncle insisted that I be included in one of the photos. Nalatar’s exuberant charm is tangible. Though only eight years old, his Mandarin is excellent. Each morning he rides off with a smile to go 拉客人 (find customers) to stay in his family’s yurt. However in two weeks he’ll return to his village to start the new school year; his horse will be a memory, and he won’t return to this pastoral life until next summer.

Later that evening, as we all sat around the hearth in the yurt, Nalatar’s uncle asked me directly: “Do you like our lifestyle?”

I responded that I loved living with them and that I was really enamored with the flow of life at Sayram. I am still trying to process what he said next: “When compared to other ethnic groups, our lifestyle is the most simple. A lot of people say that this life we live is antiquated, that we’re less civilized and cultured.”

I recalled the man in the convenience store. I tried to imagine how many countless examples of such biased thought there must be in Xinjiang. I thought of all the instances in which the Kazakhs  must have faced discrimination in their lifetime– not at the hands of the government on some macro policy level, but on the ground, in every day interactions, in the micro moments that slowly built up into an emaciated identity.

An idea of inferiority based on an imbalanced power structure. An idea of inferiority not truly believed but nonetheless present, alive. The existence of self-doubt– a consciousness of one’s inadequacy– these notions, however incorrect, seem to pervade the interrelations between herders and Han in much of Xinjiang province.

As I lay in bed that night, I kept returning to that moment: the low light that glimmered across his eyes and the searching look as he relayed the common perceptions of his people. It was as though he was looking to me for an answer. To what extent have these common perceptions been internalized? As I tossed and turned in the warmth of the yurt, the pain from my sunburn– the product of my body’s inability to acclimatize between Beijing and Xinjiang– increased in intensity.

Nantucket Fast Ferry

05 September 2013

It was a pristine morning. The harbor and the docks opened themselves into the ripening bouquet of autumn—when the colors swayed and vibrated between reds, yellows, oranges, greens, and browns. The caffeine smell of early morning issued from the silent hull of the ship while harbor waves treaded delicately. Passengers shuffled onboard and took their seats: the Nantucket Fast Ferry was guaranteed to arrive in Hyannis Port within two hours.

Some minutes passed, and the doors of the ferry closed. Everyone was inside, sitting calmly in the rows of nylon. Next to the front row window sat a man. He was complaining about something, and in the reflection of the window his withered hands trembled, subdued by the cold iron voice of his once bewitching bride, who sat next to him—a sweet looking woman in her early eighties, wearing a pale gray sweater and chic blue foulard. She had on dazzling pearl earrings.

She began to shout as she stood up and Why don’t you quit whining! made the room swell with bitter feeling and Jesus, just STOP it already! words that pounded against his wilted ears. She walked off.

The solitary profile of his once handsome face was barely visible from behind the tall ferry seats, but the hands—they stood out in the light against the tinted windowpane. Slowly, they worked at the muffin and tried to make the pieces drag themselves up to his mouth. They were hands that betrayed themselves—now scraggy and pale but clearly once muscular and commanding. The thin glass veins struggled to lift the wrapping from the baked treat that was his breakfast. It seemed that somewhere behind the back of the chair, a mind was pulsating intense decrees to make even the most basic movements possible. Deliberately, the pieces began to disappear. The ferry pushed off from shore; it would be only two hours until it reached Hyannis, and no more.

His wife came back and, bending over him, forced a coffee into his hand. As it spilled out he gasped and cursed her Well good JOB! in his own emaciated way. Furious, she ripped the cup out of his hand and You can take care of yourself, all right! threw it into the trash bin. What should have been a moment of sympathy—an old shell of what had once been a tall rugged man now unable to even hold his own coffee—deteriorated quickly into GET UP, it isn’t a big DEAL! something pitiful as he looked up at her and with a crack in his voice begged her Please don’t, you’re embarrassing me… for just one moment of understanding, of unconditional love.

Where were his children? They had probably dropped the two of them off at the ferry and fallen back into their own circuit, their own youthful life filled with its own host of first-world problems and just enough good health never to really notice how good it all was. But the circuit would again come round, and in twenty or thirty or some number of years they too would be dropped off on some ferry by their own children and face the cold unforgiving Atlantic, alone.

That was the way of Nantucket—of countless other islands that catered to the wealthy—where fathers’ houses were bought by children at good rates and then updated and redone in ways that were fashionable and modern. The parents then became strangers in their own homes, no longer movers and shakers but now pushed aside to make room for fast-paced dinner parties. Gradually, the children began making more and more money and the parents stopped earning anything, relying on the image of what used to be—the oh-so-important appearances of manifold wealth and importance. Draped over their threadbare bodies rested expensive suits of impeccable cloth—articles from a bygone era when they triumphantly swarmed upon the islands and felt like they were somebody.

Unsure of what else to do, his hands—sufficiently greased from the ferry-bought breakfast—began to search for something to clean themselves with. They looked this way and that, one finger haphazardly prodding the blue blazer lapel before deciding not to further sully the wardrobe. The jacket was as traditional as they come: navy with gold buttons, probably bought at Brooks Brothers some ten years earlier. It hung loose, with pockets of fabric sagging across the shoulders of his frame.

Unable to bear this slow, unproductive effort, his wife shoved some napkins his way. After several seconds, his hands grasped the old crumpled paper, now brown and worn with the refuse of the blueberry muffin. He worked diligently, as if the one thing he had left, the one quantum of control that he still possessed, was his ability to keep his hands clean and civilized.

Finished with their work, they fell back into place at his sides, gone from the light of the windowpane. The ferry continued onward: the engines humming, steady, consistent.

Reflections on Sayram

10 August 2015

It was difficult to say goodbye to my adoptive Kazakh family, especially knowing that I may not be able to return next summer. Though it seems like my research is heading in their direction, there are countless variables that could stand in the way of my return next summer. We sat around the yurt and sipped mare’s milk as Murat’s father joked that he’d miss his 美国儿子 (American son) over the next year.

“Before you leave, will you go see if you can get us some new customers?” he asked playfully.

I was more than happy to oblige. I rode down to the parking lot and began to do my best at convincing tourists to stay the night in my “Kazakh family’s yurt.” Most people were shocked at the fact that a foreigner was asking them if they had a place to stay here in this remote part of China.

Either I wasn’t very good at it, or none of the people I talked to happened to be staying the night– regardless, I was unsuccessful. Luckily Murat, ever persuasive and clever, was able to corral a large group of tourists.

I followed them back to the yurt so I could say goodbye to the members of the family that didn’t spend their day in the parking lot adjacent to the crater lake.

“Are you married?” The Han woman in charge of the negotiation asked Murat.

“Not yet,” he responded, a flirtatious twinkle in his eye.

“Why not? There must be plenty of Kazakh women in this part of China.”

“Plenty of Han, too,” he responded, doing his best to hide the irritation that would sour the guest-host relationship. “I could marry a Han women, couldn’t I?”

There was an awkward pause that seemed to pervade the length of the grassland. The wind was blowing in from Kazakhstan; in the cold late morning we stood and assessed one another– Kazakh, Han, American– each wearing the clothes of our profession. The young American on a motorcycle adventure was wearing an Arc’teryx midlayer, a borrowed motorcycle jacket, and hiking pants that had the potential to unzip into shorts. The Han woman was wearing a smart yellow windbreaker, pants that looked like they’d been purchased specifically for this trip, and hiking boots. The Kazakh man wore patent leather shoes that were clearly meant for urban life, a pair of fraying jeans, and a sun-parched track jacket. On his head was the hat that did little to protect his face from the high-altitude sun.

For a moment the wind ceased.

“Of course you could; I just didn’t think your father would be okay with that,” she clarified.

Hills of White

23 September 2012

We stood alongside the towering green-furred pines as the snow came down in small but plentiful white dots that scampered across our overcoats. We had paused to talk, to hash out our ideas about what was true in the universe. We had also stopped to see how educated we each were, to show that our university tuitions and the names of our respective institutions had paid off, had given us the ability to argue quickly and well.

Moments earlier the three of us had walked up the steep bank that was slowly turning white, was gradually becoming covered with a soft crunchy curtain that made a beautiful delicate sound as the thousands of individual beads formed a compacted whole underneath our heavy, insulated Gore-Tex boots. We hadn’t planned for snow but luckily we were prepared for it.

The conversation had ambled along with us, starting out with the usual mundane topics as we unloaded our food and Brandy into the Kazakh Yurt and prepared to make our way through the rolling grassland and up to the beautiful picturesque mountain that I had visited the previous Spring. The fog was hovering close to us then and it was impossible to see very far but we had come a long way by car and had planned the trip in advance and we were damn well going to hike in the beautiful draping layer of gray and white. We were young and hoping for the best, for a view of the mountains further up the trail.

* * *

An hour earlier, as we prepared to leave for our hike, I had needed to go back inside for water; my newly arrived Princeton in Asia cohorts waited for me as I re-submerged myself into the warm darkness of the Yurt—a gigantic white tent used by nomadic peoples—questioning whether we should in fact go hiking in such poor visibility. Then I rejoined them, the conversation.

We began walking up the road as delicate pieces of hail started to fall. It was not uncomfortable hail but rather it was dispersed and spread apart. It moved gently across the mossy green of the grassland, rolling across the hills and jumping playfully along the frozen gravel under our feet.

We continued along the road, talking about newly discovered mutual friends; sharing stories of past conquests borne from parties we’d been to; and quoting lines from the token American movies. The three of us had each chosen to spend the year in China’s far northwest, in a province that borders Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan, to name a few—clearly we would have some things in common. As we made our way up the slowly increasing slope, we started to feel more comfortable around each other—speaking a similar language borne from upper-middle class America and elite undergraduate institutions.

It was the first time the three of us had gone anywhere together, and while the car ride had been pleasant, we were finally here in nature, without our cell phones, or girlfriends (or possible flings), and we really, truly, liked each other.

* * *

The road forked to the right, but I decided that we should turn to the left and walk up the hill in that direction. I had been here once before, in the early Spring the previous year, and I had followed the road all the way up to the rightmost peak, which I couldn’t see now. It would be better, I decided, to get off the road and head toward the left-most peak that I hadn’t yet climbed. I was looking for a new experience.

“Are you sure we should go that way?” Chris asked.

I assured him that we wouldn’t get lost, that I had been here before, and that while it seemed very vast, the area we were walking in was in fact not so big and rather difficult to get lost in. So we made our way up toward the left slope and Robert got out his compass and took a bearing. This was a good idea, and neither Chris nor I had thought to take the precaution.

We couldn’t see very far at all now, but uphill was uphill, and so we knew we were heading in the right direction. Our progress was slowly halted every few minutes as we made our way up one slope only to realize that the white fog was leading our minds further up than the physical limits of the white hill actually allowed. The illusion was always the same: look up and see a big tall hill that continued up for hundreds of meters; climb up to the top; realize that the whiteness of the surrounding air was blending perfectly with the cresting white hill, and that instead of continuing upwards toward some sort of mountainous peak, it only led downward into another small micro-valley with another descent followed shortly thereafter by another deceptively small scoop of land leading up into more vacant space.

* * *

Slowly, the hills lost their green character and became wedded to the curtain that pressed low and soft above and around us. We were enveloped by the hills and so we put our trust in our footsteps’ ability to lead us in a straight line toward the mountain, which we knew was looming above us somewhere.

Finally, after being pushed and pulled up and then down in our attempts to ascend, we saw the first shadows of three big pine trees making their shapes known in the relative distance. They stood like dark sentinels, announcing the presence of a new microclimate, a new terrain.

The ground quickly became rocky and the snow started coming down in a pure thick fluff. The air was sharp now and we paused to rest underneath the awning of that first tree. We sat on the soft russet pine needles and I drank water, afraid of dehydration and altitude sickness, something that had plagued me in the past. I offered Chris and Robert some water but they politely declined. After taking a determined sip of the ice-cold liquid, I tried again to encourage them to drink, tried to make them understand the dangers of dehydration and exertion and altitude.

We sat for a moment and listened to the silent lapping of the snow against the foliage and the stones. It was like time had stopped moving, like nothing existed outside of what we could see with our limited vision. But our footprints from moments before were becoming less and less visible.

I was hot from all the walking, so I took off my down jacket and replaced it with a raincoat. The sweat felt uncomfortable, like it was trapped within my mid-layer and under-shirt. The heat was stifling and I began to regret my over-preparation, the way I had overburdened myself with layers that ended up serving no purpose.

With the jacket tucked away carefully in my daypack, we were now ready for the march; we continued, this time going unceasingly upwards, with no rolling hills to shackle us to the low horizon. We had finally found ourselves beyond the roller-coaster weaving grassland.

* * *

We turned toward the sound of water rushing cold against rock matter, invisible through the dense snow and low-lying fog. After a minute’s walk, we could see the rolling stream. Robert took another bearing, and we decided that it would be most prudent to make our ascent up along the river bank, to avoid getting lost. The snow was getting thicker now. Chris paused, looking off into the intangible distance, staring at the proximate nothing that we presumed was veiling the vast mountains of China’s Tianshan range.

It was cold. We walked up the river a few paces and somehow it was written that we happened to come across two gigantic skulls hanging from the base of another of those deep, imposing pines.

“Well that’s not creepy at all,” Chris offered upon finding the sinewy jaundiced remnants of a head. We couldn’t figure out what animal it was. At first I suggested cow, but then Chris adeptly pointed out that it probably belonged to (or used to, at least) a camel. Suddenly it was very obvious that it was in fact a camel, with its long beak-like snout and ridged teeth clearly advantaged for grazing on strands of roughage in the sparse desert grass. The teeth looked like razors and each of them had a dark hollowed out portion either from over-use or from infection.

We stood there transfixed by this reminder of death, this image that was present and real and not from some second-hand apocryphal story; death was ugly, sickening; it was horrifying but also amusing, because there were no camel dentists, apparently.

We continued on.

* * *

We slowly made progress up the side of the ravine, making sure not to get too close to the white edge. The snow became more and more thick under our feet and we slipped once or twice, each fall bolstering our determination to continue onward. Chris described a favorite website of his, XKCD, and one of the hilarious logical inconsistencies it had recently pointed out regarding the inane behavior of human beings.

“Oh yeah, didn’t you mention another article from that site yesterday?” I asked, groping for the story, feeling ashamed of my poor memory.

“Yeah, what was it…?” he too, couldn’t recall.

“Wasn’t it the one about the physicist who calculated that if there was such a thing as a true love, you would have to spend ten hours a day every day of your adult life looking for her to have any hope of finding her?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” he laughed.

Not content to let the opportunity shrink away from us, I continued, “Well that guy didn’t even take his analysis to the greatest extreme. Have either of you read Plato’s Symposium?”

Neither of them had.

“It contains a series of speeches on Love, and one of the speeches deals with the idea of True Love; specifically, how utterly improbable it is for one human being to ever find their True Love. The speech, delivered by the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes, makes use of a myth in which human beings, in their original state, were whole and perfect, never wanting or needing anything. They were both man and woman in one, and they never knew the idea of Eros, or desire, because their existence left nothing to be desired. In a similar fashion to the Old Testament’s story of the Tower of Babel, these early human beings grew too confident and their sense of supremacy angered the gods.

“To get revenge, the gods divided human beings into two—cleaving each soul from one harmonious whole into two wanting, needing halves. So Aristophanes claims that the root of Love—Eros—is the absence of something. Basically, we are constantly trying to re-attain that pure unadulterated form in which our souls were in perfect concord with everything. Therefore one’s True Love is that other half—the person whose soul used to be wed to ours. If we can find the other half, we will live in complete bliss, never wanting or lacking anything. But underneath Aristophanes’ entire argument is the notion that one’s True Love doesn’t necessarily need to belong to the same city, the same country, or even the same time period. What if your soul mate lived four hundred years ago? So ultimately it becomes almost impossible to ever find that one person who is your True, Perfect, Love.”

Chris and Robert listened politely, and they looked interested. I felt like I was contributing something to our walk.

“The idea that True Love could ever exist is the most illogical and ludicrous notion I’ve ever heard,” Chris said with stringent force.

“Is it?” I asked, caught off guard by his intense tone.

We stopped walking. The snow was falling with the same weight as it had been just moments earlier, but none of us seemed to notice or care; we didn’t move the few feet over to the cover provided by the stand of trees on our right. The three of us looked at each other, considering our own opinions. I personally had no real opinion of whether True Love was something I believed in or didn’t, but that the very notion should be ludicrous? I didn’t agree at all.

“This is a very common but very flawed notion that human beings have. We are animals that have evolved over time to have certain feelings that we like to cover up with saccharine idealism about our true calling, and the purity of our existence… but none of that is remotely real or verifiable. The majority of people would agree with you—that True Love is a tangible thing, that it exists—but if you look at it logically, it has no basis in the verifiable world, the world of science and observation.”

He spoke rapidly, the ideas hitting me like a cold wave. It scared me the way he could make an argument sound so cogent with such breathtaking speed. He accelerated, saying: “There is no soul, and there is no soul mate. No observable process in the universe lends itself to the idea that each individual, mating, human being has one match that is infinitely superior to any other. Animals have an innate desire to produce offspring, and in order to find a superior mate, we take the former necessities like strength and fitness and bedeck them with modern-day cosmopolitan attributes like a sense of humor or intelligence. We’re still relying on that same wavelength that the rhinoceros relies on, but we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that just because we can build computers and write books about the world that we are somehow separate, on a different plane from its dirt-riddled reality.

“Your soul mate isn’t living in some village in South America three hundred years ago. Your ideal lover needs to have a series of common experiences that you and she can both relate to. People don’t transcend society and culture unless they make a conscious effort to do it. To believe that there was some woman out there speaking a forgotten language three hundred years ago who was capable of making you utterly happy—it’s absurd. Go to New York City: you’ve got a much better chance of finding her there than you do scouring the entire history of human beings.”

He paused for a moment, then began again: “You want to believe in this idea of ‘perfect,’ but there is no ‘perfect,’ there is no one thing that is ‘most suited’ to you. You have lots of people that could make you equally happy. How on earth are you going to measure one person’s love as being the best?”
I tried to quickly consider everything he had said before I responded. But I felt rushed.

“What do you mean you can’t measure it? The idea is that there is one person whose every aspect is suited perfectly with yours. If you’re a utilitarian person your soul mate will be equally as utilitarian, getting the exact same use out of you as you are getting out of her. There are so many different types of people in existence, there has to be one person of all the people ever with whom you are most finely tuned. The natural world is filled with ‘most’ and ‘least.’ If you can say, for example, that water is at its highest temperature at x degree and its lowest temperature at x degree, why can’t you have one person that is most suited for you and one person that is least suited for you?” I was getting in over my head. I was feeling cold and my hair was getting wet. I felt the strands, and they were becoming icicles. I wanted to say, ‘aren’t you guys cold?’ but I remembered another work of Plato and laughed to myself that the body could so completely obstruct such an abstruse intellectual conversation. I refrained—tried to pretend that the cold and the wet weren’t bothering me.

“What does that even mean, ‘most suited to you?’ What you’re talking about is something completely abstract that has no bearing or relation to the natural, quantifiable world. You’re mixing your metaphors and trying to use something absolute, like ‘Hitler was a man,’ and saying that that statement is just the same type of quantifiable statement as ‘Hitler was a terrible man.’ You can never say absolutely that Hitler was a terrible man because it is a completely subjective claim. I could just as easily say that for me, the things Hitler did weren’t bad at all and then there’s no categorical rejoinder you can make.” It was exciting to breathe this air and exhale and watch his eyes as he quickly transitioned from one line of direct questioning to another.

“I think you both are saying interesting things, and overall I definitely agree with you, Chris, but you could measure things like Beta-waves, for example, to show tangibly how two people were perfectly suited for each other,” Robert came in to my aid and I felt grateful that I didn’t just have to rely on my own incredibly limited, dim view of ‘science’ to make my point come across.

“Again, what is this word perfect? And what if you run that test and then you have a couple who claim that they are completely in love and perfectly happy with one another but you have to say, ‘nope, excuse me, you’re actually not perfect for each other?’”

“Then they wouldn’t be perfect for each other, they would just have found someone very close to it,” I interjected.

“That is incredibly unspecific. There is no such thing as a Kantian Ethics and there is no such thing as a ‘perfect tuning of soul—’ these are just constructs of people who are afraid to face the world as it is, who need something more than just what we are—living, breathing, imperfect beings—to feel like life is a magical thing.

“The world is spectacular—it’s incredible—it’s magnificent—but there doesn’t need to be a God or a perfect harmonious union of souls for that to be the case.”

I looked at the ground, feeling that he was missing something beautiful about human life, something so intangible and vague that nobody could ever prove or disprove its existence. But at the same time I felt that what I was missing was something worse: something real. Suddenly, just the notion that True Love was important seemed silly, the idea that it should exist in relation to any of the laws of the universe a ridiculous farce. I felt ashamed for having taken eight political philosophy courses and then losing an argument to a graduate of Social Studies at Harvard who was soon going to enter the Ph. D. program in Political Science at the very same institution with that unbearably elite name, and here I was: the self-presumed intellectual who was thinking of pursuing Literature and Philosophy and feeling empty, like none of it was worth it. We walked on, and for a few dejected minutes I was unable to make steady eye contact with Chris.

* * *

The snowfall began to mount across the coniferous giants as we continued up the ridge and crossed the icy remnants of the river. Chris slipped and banged his leg up but managed not to get very wet at all. I was worried about him and suddenly the embarrassment from before was gone and he was not an intellectual assailant anymore, had again taken on the form of the super agreeable new guy with a great sense of humor.

He was not the complaining type and so we continued on without issue, finally moving beyond the looming masses of trees and finding a steep hill with a set of crags peaking out over the top. We climbed up to see what view there was on the other side, now talking about time and whether it was subjective or objective. Chris claimed that it was objective and Robert that it was subjective, that an hour in meditation could feel like no time at all and Chris responding that after an hour of meditation the clock still read that an hour had elapsed; probably missing the point, I claimed that time was in fact both, existing in a unique way for each life form, that within this uniqueness lay an absolute unyielding rule of which the individual experience was one particular form.

After ten minutes we had reached the top. But what should have been a pristine mountain view was just the beginning of a deep valley, with a disappointing thirty meters’ visibility. In the valley below were more trees, and they looked just the same as the trees in the valley we’d just come from. They were draped in snow—the thick white cobwebs of the early winter. The curtain hung across the valley and it became clear that there would be no view today.

We looked out and saw the wall of emptiness, a full cloud of non-visibility. Robert took some photos of the jagged granite, the only part of the peak that was not pure white, the only image that stood out against the starkly obscured hill.

* * *

We threw a few snowballs and watched them tumble down, picking up other small pieces of graceful flickering snow as they went, creating a tumbling of faint pieces of dust-like snow that drifted up in slow motion with each sliding bounce. Soon we too descended, sledding between steps in a controlled fall that was careless and young.

We started back down the same trail that we had ascended up, our uphill footprints dim in the growing quilt of soft snow. I wanted a change of scenery, wanted to walk through the forest that had embraced our right flank as we had made our way up the river one hour beforehand. Robert and Chris were skeptical about losing the way. I assured them that we wouldn’t.

Now the subject had shifted back to the less abstruse, and we talked—or joked, rather—about Google’s prominence and what their new Google Glass concept meant for 21st century interaction. We trudged through the drifts between the wooded, sheltered pine needles and described friends and friends of friends who were working on iPhone applications and of all the Harvard kids Chris had known who wanted to be the next Zuckerberg.

We arrived at the bottom of the forest and back to the foot of the grassland, this time too engrossed in contemporary affairs and pop culture to pay much attention to our footsteps or the direction they traveled in. We crossed a river or two and then thirty minutes to an hour had gone by and we were somewhere among the rolling hills that suddenly appeared as if they were leaping uncontrollably into one uniform, impossibly confusing mass. It was six o’clock and we had two hours left till nightfall—the time when the deep-set haze of white would grow into a dangerous, dark situation.

* * *

But I was confident that I knew the way back—if we would follow the river downhill, it would lead us to the main road and from there we just had to turn left and head up until the next road that went left and before too long we’d be back at the Yurt, warm and drinking brandy. We walked some more and Robert took another bearing, this time seeming more determined than the last. The situation was rapidly deteriorating and yet we three were together and not too worried because it was turning out to be quite a day, an adventure, a great story.

We continued our conversation, stopping every now and then to look at the odd exhibit of carrion strewn along the way. It seemed that with each step we plunged further and further into the fog; it became more and more thick and with the fading light went visibility and my left heel began to feel worn out but I ignored it and trudged onward thinking that everything would be all right. The cold was starting to feel more pronounced and I kept telling them that I recognized certain places and bends in the river but gradually I shut up because my statements were, as Robert rightly pointed out, a product of my own wishful thinking. I hadn’t actually been to this part of the vast grassland before. We were nowhere near where I thought we were; we were anywhere.

No path that we took seemed to be leading anywhere closer to our destination, and I wanted to start running along the riverbank while there was any light left, wanted to keep going down the stream, to plunge forward under the blind assumption that we would get lucky and find something. Robert warned against just following one direction continuously because it might just make us even more lost. It was seven o’clock and time was running out; we were at least an hour’s walk from the start of the alpine trees, where we had initially made a wrong turn.

* * *

We began back the way we came, this time with hurried, serious steps. Hills came and went slowly in and out of focus and my mind became worn with the idea that this day—this great story—might actually not end the way I’d always imagined it ending, that we might in fact have to spend the night in the rapidly dropping mercury or try to build an igloo, huddling together inside hoping that minor frostbite would be the least of our troubles.

Suddenly out of my peripheral I saw a small hovel with three jet-black horses standing outside. It was barely visible but it was really, truly there. We walked briskly toward the hut and called out as loud as we could. A dark figure emerged wearing a huge coat and a big fur hat, definitely Kazakh. We got closer and he smiled a big toothless smile, his face dark tan and wrinkled with years of hard work in the sun-steeped grassland. He spoke very little Chinese but we gestured to convey the fact that we were lost and he pointed behind his hut to another hill with a lone figure and some sheep, motioning for us to follow him.

He rode atop the smallest of his three horses, a pony really. His dark green coat and his legs hung over the side of the rotund, un-athletic animal. It was amazing the way the beast was able to carry even its own weight across the muddy snow-coated slopes. We reached the base of the hill, and a woman came down and greeted us, smiling warmth, her broad cheekbones welcoming and kind.

We explained our situation and she replied with a thick Kazakh accent that her father would show us the way back to our Yurt. Amazed, grateful, we shook her hand and followed the pony-clad Kazakh grandfather figure, our savior, out into the void. He led in front and didn’t say a word. He and the animal began to gradually escape into the distance, and we had to pick up our pace, joking about how silly it would be if we lost our way again. It was the most impossible scenario watching this hulking figure saunter out in front of us, the only visible sound being the slow pattering of hooves and the faint echoing of boots engaged in long, wearied strides.

Then he stopped. He turned around and waited for us to catch up. He pointed to some motorcycle tracks imprinted deep in the snow and gestured for us to follow them, saying ‘Yurt’ and pointing in their direction. I was very skeptical that this wasn’t just his apathy, but Chris and Robert reached out gratefully to shake his hand and I followed their lead, letting the warm powerful tanned baseball mitt of a hand envelope my cold glove.

* * *

We went forward into more of the same scenery and started up yet another hill when suddenly in the distance I saw a black dog with its teeth bared, standing directly in the motorcycle tracks and blocking our way forward. Quickly my mind jumped to the worst, and I grabbed Chris and Robert and halted them, pointing to the spot of our impending doom.

“Dude that’s a sign, not a dog,” Chris said in a reassuring voice. Robert concurred. I didn’t believe them—there it was, bearing its teeth all white and ridged, its hindquarters priming to burst forward.

We walked a few more paces, my tone turning to one of pleading caution, begging them to please be sure they weren’t making a mistake. I took my eyes off of the animal for a moment and a second later, when I looked back, it was a sign on two black metal legs with white writing clustered across its face. It had seemed so real…

We stopped to examine the sign, and Robert asked about a clarification of the Chinese characters printed across the metal frame. Chris clarified that it meant ‘deer bend.’ He then read the characters aloud in Chinese.

“Oh, that’s the name of this grassland,” I added. I’d known how to say it, but had never learned how it was written—one of the problems of studying a language like Chinese. “Guys, we really shouldn’t stop moving. This motorcycle track could be leading us nowhere,” I reminded them. They offered their assent.

By now it was no longer snowing, but the cold was biting in ways that flakes had been unable to. The worst part was the idea of the possibility of what might come.

But then out of nowhere emerged first one Yurt then a series of Yurts. They slowly unfolded in front of our eyes like the tree line had earlier that day, this too being a sign of something beautiful. Now, it had been a proper travail, an adventure we could talk about with our digits and limbs intact. We had triumphed, we had won.

* * *

We entered the compound and I felt like Odysseus realizing he had finally found his way back to Ithaca. We had big smiles on our faces as we told the affable part-Chinese, part-Kazakh owner of what had occurred. A jovial man with a hearty laugh, he chuckled at our errors in judgment and told us that he was glad we had finally come back. We would need some coal for the Yurt, and we were hungry. Chris and Robert went inside while I accompanied the owner to his own Yurt to look at the menu and see what food options we had. We had brought a miniature camping stove and plenty of instant noodles, but this was no time for cheap instant noodles.

Toward the tail end of our journey I had slowly begun to notice a headache, and now that we were safe it was coming on with vigor. Perhaps I had been so preoccupied with the task at hand that I just hadn’t noticed it; in reality my body was probably only now starting to feel the effects of the altitude.

I quickly looked over the menu with its predictably inflated prices and made the mistake of asking what his specialty was. Of course the most expensive option on the menu was the answer, but it was big enough for all three of us and we were starving because lunch had been a meager combination candy bars and cashew nuts and we’d been walking for hours since then. I left his Yurt and closed the scrap metal door behind me, the clanking sound bringing a new surge to the pounding in my head.

Once inside our Yurt it seemed like everything was cold and wet and I laid my clothes out to dry, hoping that the coal furnace would speed up the process. It took much longer than I had expected, however, and it seemed like forever before they were dry. The blood was pounding hard against the inside wall of my skull and I lost all of my appetite. I lay down and for the first time all day felt no desire to speak, to join them in their lively conversation. Just looking at the bottles of brandy on the table made me feel nauseous and the dim headlamp hanging from the ceiling was painful to make eye contact with.

I wanted so badly to regain my strength, to once again be a part of this new group that was exciting and stimulating to be around. I reclined back and laid the sleeping bag across my body, too weak to zip it up or properly climb inside. I could feel the cold pressing against parts of my exposed self, but pulling these parts in seemed like it would require too much effort and so I just lay there, having no energy to comprehend their voluble words but focusing instead on the dimness of the ceiling as I pondered when it was that the carpets and blankets had most recently been cleaned and how long it would be until the food that I didn’t even have an appetite for would come and when it would be that sleep would finally take me off into a place where my head didn’t hurt and the altitude was non-existent.

* * *

I fell into a daze, awake but unthinking, when finally the door opened and the overpriced food was brought in. I brought myself upward and tried a bite and then another of the chicken. The noodles came a few minutes later and those were easier to handle. I knew my body was hungry and that the chicken was actually prepared quite well but neither of those things registered as my mind decided for me that it was time to lie down again.

“How are you feeling?” Chris asked—an impossible question to answer because I knew it probably seemed like I was overreacting with the way I was laying there pathetically letting the chicken that I had ordered get cold in the empty cold space that drowned out the stove’s hot coals. For the first time a thought occurred to me that I didn’t necessarily have to stay there up on that plateau and suffer the whole night, that I could pay some ridiculous sum and have someone take me back to my apartment that rested at 500 meters above sea level, three hours away.

I ran the idea by Robert and Chris and it seemed farfetched but I was feeling so desperate I wanted more than anything to just get out of there and get back down close to sea-level, to find my warm apartment with the Advil and my girlfriend there to take care of me. I asked Robert to go and ask the owner if there was anyone nearby who would be willing to take me back.

Twenty minutes later a taxi arrived, had come from who knows where. He refused to take me all the way to Shihezi, but could take me as far as the closest city, at which point I could find another taxi to take me the forty minutes to my apartment. He wanted 300 RMB for a two-hour-long ride, which made me feel sick inside, and I tried to put up a fight and bargain him down to 150. There was no chance in hell that he would drive me for that little and he knew as well as I did that he was my only option and that I was too determined to get back home to care about such a steep price.

Robert and Chris helped me into the car and we said goodnight. I was freezing cold now but I entered the car and felt the fabric-smell and the blasting heat of the interior. The seat was uncomfortable but it had a seat belt and I wanted to leave as quickly as possible, to get down to a level that my body could handle. We lurched forward and the car bounced up and down across the stones in the makeshift road. Our forward progress, the fact that I would soon enough be out of this pressured hell, was enough to ease my headache to a tolerable level.

About twenty minutes into the ride I urged the driver to stop because I felt like I couldn’t hold the sickness in any longer. He stopped the car just in time and I threw open the door and stood up and immediately began to vomit for what felt like an hour, but was probably only a few minutes. The lactic acid smell was in my nose and my eyes were bulging with tears and my head felt like a summer day in the Gobi. We were still too high up—our progress was too slow—and the altitude was corrupting my body, its ability to self-regulate. I felt so powerless, so utterly incapable of living, of thinking and doing the things I so wanted to do. I had ventured a few hundred meters too high, and now everything had become bleak.

I spent a minute catching my breath and wiping away the vomit and the snot that clung to my face. I got back in the car, signaling the driver to continue. He didn’t ask me if I was all right, he just put the car into drive and continued on his way. I would get through this.

* * *

The rattling of the chassis didn’t bother me at all as we swept across the small ditches and corroded lines that characterized the mountainous road home. We built up speed, falling down, going back into the place with no ascents or altitude problems, a place I had lived for a whole year, a place with warmth and my girlfriend waiting for me with her sweet caressing eyes.

The fog gradually washed away—was brought to a tolerable level by the steep descending plummeting motion of the car. The lower the car went, the further you could see; gradually, city lights began to shine in the distance. My head hurt softly now. I slowly let myself fade out of consciousness, my head swaying back and forth in the enclosed cabin. I knew that I would be home soon, away from the fog and the hills of deceiving white, far removed from the mountains that Robert, Chris and I never quite fully grasped.