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.
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.
19 May 2012
It sure can be hard to find milk in China. Let me clarify. The Chinese have milk a-plenty; that is, they have lots of drinks that look like they should be milk, once you overlook the fact that they are in fact not refrigerated and come from a powder. Hankering for some Calcium? Tired of all the extra hardship that opening up and reaching into a refrigerator presents? Like watery milk? Well you’ve come to the right country! China—the land where futuristic milk is all the rage!
Well actually it turns out I’m in luck, as I’ve found that the native, non-Han peoples of Xinjiang province—Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks—happen to love milk. Fresh, delicious, rich, REFRIGERATED! milk. Last weekend I visited Urumqi, the ultra-diverse provincial capital. The streets were littered with people that looked like they could have been any combination of East Asian, Central Asian, and European descent. Shop signs featured Chinese, Russian, and Uyghur. Urumqi is very unlike the city I live in—a bastion of Han identity, 95% of those living in Shihezi are the Han Chinese descendants of soldiers who fought in Mao’s army. With abounding diversity in every direction, it quickly became obvious that I wasn’t in China anymore.
I went to a Uyghur restaurant with a Kazakh friend who, while on the phone, received a frosty mug full of delicious, thick looking MILK. After greedily watching him gulp down the stuff in a matter of seconds, I promptly called the 服务员 (waitress fuwuyuan) and had my own frosty mug within minutes. My eyes feasted on its cold, consistent milkiness. I lifted the chalice, felt the chill of the glass against my hand, and took a hearty sip of…WHAT IS THIS? I asked my Kazakh friend.
‘Uh?’ he replied, as if I were some kind of ignorant person: ‘well, it’s camel’s milk.’
So now I’ve had myself some camel’s milk, and indeed it wasn’t so bad after all. At first, I thought I was drinking some sort of perfectly chilled drinkable yogurt. It wasn’t quite as sour as goat’s milk, but it was definitely a shock to my palate. So I said to the waitress: ‘Excuse me, I thought that my friend had ordered milk…er, I mean, cow’s milk…could you please bring me a glass of cow’s milk instead?’
‘Cow’s milk?’ her eyes gesticulated a look of supreme suspicion: ‘We don’t have that kind of milk here.’
Perhaps I had offended her, I don’t really know. What I do know is that I saddled up and continued drinking that Camel’s milk like Lawrence of China—the slightly less famous but equally badass man of yore who went from village to village on the Northwestern Chinese steppe in a similar fashion to that of Lawrence of Arabia, drinking Camel’s milk all the while.
So in essence I’ve learned not to assume anything. That, and the fact that Camel’s milk tastes like sour yogurt.
December 11, 2012