The train pulled out in the darkness and I watched the slow roll of office buildings and neon signs move past my window. Across from me, a small plain woman was on the phone with her husband, telling him that the train would arrive in the morning, not to worry please, and did you have your dinner yet? Her soft and simple words made me feel all the stranger for being footloose and on the move in this giant functional land. For so many people, China was nothing more than home. The woman pulled a styrofoam carton of peas and noodles out of her suitcase. She pulled a pair of chopsticks out and ate. A train attendant girl walked down the corridors in her gray uniform selling newspapers and fashion magazines, and another followed her pushing a cart of rice and fried fish on plastic trays. A man in a suit was staring pensively out the window where there was only blackness and the occasional lights of a factory.
I spread my maps of southern China over my bunk. I had two Chinese road maps on which I had traced out a route from Guilin to the Laotian border on route 323; this road would take me across Guangxi province, which meant “Wide West” and into Yunnan, “South of the Clouds.” I had opened and closed these maps dozens of times by now just to stare at the red lines of road and the blue river tracings and wonder what I would find between it all. My bicycle was locked up in a corridor between the cars with its front wheel removed and hitched to the frame with a sturdy lock. Tomorrow my journey would begin in earnest. In the bags strapped over my bicycle I had eighty rolls of film, my Canon AE-1, a sleeping bag, two extra shirts, underwear, a bathing suit, a stack of books and journals, my Chinese dictionary, road maps for China, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, medicine, bandages, spare parts for the bicycle, and a satellite phone which my parents had insisted I take with me.
Three months earlier, my cousin Eric met me in Beijing. I’d just finished months of intensive Mandarin studies and we boarded a train loaded with migrant workers headed for the northwest deserts, traveling three days by rail to harvest the September cotton crops. This all felt like another lifetime to me now. I loved the desert and walked out under the starry night singing incantations to the firmament I believed held a smiling God. But the journals were with me. I lay back on my bunk and though I was thinking of what would come tomorrow, I opened up my journals from western China and I read them over until the morning light came in the window.
Dream on the Train to Xian, August 28th
All at night in a rusty waterworld Hong Kong, ferried home every night by a mad gondolier always in a drunken blitz and heavily questioning my motives for being there. Buying cigarettes at bombed-out stalls. Then I became a suspect of the government because they found all of my notes on existentialism from Columbia. They took me away for interrogation because, they said, all these Bad Existentialists had been stealing the powerboats of government officials in the harbor and speeding around on them, shooting off fireworks. I had to give a lecture to the government in Chinese on what existentialism is and why it’s not bad! They applauded me and took me out for ice cream.
Xinjiang, Lake of Heaven, September 3rd
The Kazakh wedding, we all dance and sing, eat lamb off the bones, the old men, wrinkled as they are, give their best and bravest words, in a language I will never know, but I understand and we drink and drink and then we dance. Thinking who am I to enter here, American, singing songs telling tell them and they say lying by the roadside to sleep is too dangerous here, a six-year-old child has her birthday. I love my world.
Now, a new place, after walking so long around the lake to the other side, we find a tent, past the hills where white goats climb and the dried riverbeds full of small streams, the white moon hangs over the hills in the gathering night. We meet a lady carrying straw, she takes us to her yurt where we will stay the night. A small radio blazes wonderful music through its static, violins and voices coming, a small child, eating biscuits, man and wife living as original as the hills in this mountain hut, and only we will venture on, into the world, they will stay and the night will gather over them, like this night now, always. The dried riverbed, rocks only, the small white cats running amongst the rocks and yurts. Would that child get to the city of Xinjiang, the capital city, and then Beijing? And America is so far away, farther than I ever knew, O the plane rides I take for granted. The child sleeps in his father’s arm as the parents slice bread and meat. The fire roars. We drink goat’s milk with tea. The hills are silent here. A solemn Kazakh waltz plays on the radio. The white cat, brown spots, dives back and forth from the tops of sacks filled with clothes. One coal stove. Radio static. Perfect music. The cat appeared in my dream last night, perched upon a street vendor’s stall. Last night I stepped out of the hut, sleepless, in the crisp autumn air, to walk along the dry rock riverbed under the Milky Way. The mother lifts her child up and he pisses into the fire and on the dirt floor. Goat’s meat hangs on the rafters above. The party yesterday, the birthday of a small girl, six years old, dressed in white and blue with a pointed princess hat; she seems to be of exceptional prettiness around here and I wonder why the occasion is so big, but do not ask. We drink and dance. They give me endless rounds of “Chinese vodka,” each man insisting to share a toast with me. We share two tall glasses, passing them around so that two drink at a time. The glasses are frequently spilled and everyone laughs out loud. I sing a song with the piano and then play harmonica blues. Everyone cheers and when I return to my seat, more vodka is foisted upon me. Eric and I manage to make our exit before drinking ourselves to death and get halfway down the mountain road before passing out in the pine needles and leaves of a forest clearing. Eric sleeps and I lie there singing “Walking Down the Line” very loudly making up verses about Kazakh vodka and Bill Harlow. Eric mutters “water…” so I set out to find it. The village girls give me a bottle of it and refuse payment, all giggling at the leaves stuck in my hair. When I return, Eric has a fresh pool of vomit next to him, but I manage to wake him and we start our several-hour walk to the other side of the lake. Now we both sing “Walking Down the Line” and we’re very smashed. It is one o’clock in the sunny afternoon.
October 8th, Kailash Kora Journal
Through old frosted windows can see prayer flags strewn over the mountainside and dusky shadows growing out of the rocks. Walked 8 km today to the first monastery and sit here now with butter tea brewing on the stove. The Tibetans are always humming softly to themselves. The ancient woman next to me spins her prayer wheel. There are only the sounds of her humming and the wheezing of the stove, scraping of coals out of its chamber. Another woman in a bright red shawl uses a matchstick to clean her ears and we both laugh when she looks up and notices my curiosity. The old woman wears a sailor’s skull cap, covered in beads of white and red. On the way to this monastery, I passed by three men prostrating themselves, taking one step then falling down to their knees and all the way to the ground with their hands outstretched. They will continue that way all along the mountain. A tapestry of red yellow green blue stripes hangs above the beds. A bare lightbulb hangs from the center of the room. All the furniture is painted with many colors. The red-eyed guard dog howls outside. Crows fly just below me along the rocky cliffs outside. For miles away, I can see pilgrims walking, along the riverbed in ones and twos and threes. She pulls dried yak shit out of a burlap bag and places it in the fire. The wind roars through the prayer flags outside. Spinning a prayer wheel in her right hand; counting beads with her left. Four of the men arrive, pour tea. One picks up the prayer wheel, shakes it more vigorously, almost anxiously. Another younger man brings incense into the room, mutters something—everyone laughs heartily. The clothes here are not ceremonial, only warm. Everyone is strewn with beads. Warm vests, down jackets. The pilgrims arrive at dusk and as I am putting on my long johns I hear the slow beating of a drum. Everything in Tibet has this slow breathing rhythm, from the chants murmured softly by everyone to the mashing of the butter tea in a long wooden bucket. I see the pilgrims from above, moving slowly along the river valley beneath the mountains, a band of a dozen or so brightly dressed in Peruvian reds and greens. Another band reaches the monastery and the mad dog barking viciously announces their arrival. I hear the jingling of the bells sewn into their clothes. The priest leads them to the temple where countless butter lamps light the darkness, little yellow flames, shadows glowing on the walls. He chants and blows a jewel-encrusted conch shell, touching each of them with it as they kneel. I still hear the bells of pilgrims and sheep; they fill the air so beautifully like crickets in the country night. When I sit on this mountain ridge, I watch the silhouettes of the prayer flags flap and dance in the moonlight beneath the stars, hear the bells of the pilgrims in their cloaks circling around and around me murmuring their constant chants, see the lights of other pilgrim bands in the valley below, advancing. A woman walks in with a dried leg of goat’s meat. The men carve it up with their knives, slapping bits of meat into their mouths. They all mutter the OM, the sound of the universe. If they did not make it, would I ever hear it? I went to find the pilgrims again and they were all clustered into a tiny room sitting on the floor together chanting. Firelight from the stove grew their shadows on the walls.
Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.