Wednesday, December 24, 2008

South of Yecheng

Let me continue to recall a voyage in Western China, into Tibet, picking up where I left off in a previous post.

Mani and I had busted out of the hotel compound and were now walking southward, out of Yecheng. Being Sherpa, Mani could pass as a Chinese national, but not me. Fortunately, I had picked up a hat made of black sheep's wool back in Kashgar, which hid my western features, afro-like. It was early morning, there was a moon, and the road was lined with poplars. Folks were hauling goods on donkey carts, mostly toward the city, but nobody paid special attention to me. That's my memory.

After a couple hours, we caught a convoy of truckers heading south. We traveled perhaps 200 kilometers before we stopped. Word was, a bridge was washed out, and we'd have to wait in a small Muslim town. Here's a map. You'll find Yecheng in the lower left. You'll also note that there aren't any towns worthy of being marked on the route that leads into Ali, in Tibet.

As things go in this part of the world, it's bad form to immediately busy yourself with issues like food and lodging, gesturing into your palate and the like. You hang and let the locals feel you out. That's what we did. It was 1987 and the velcro on my backpack was the object of fascination for local children, and later, the adults. Those hooks and loops were put to the test for better than an hour, I'm sure.

A Tibetan man was stranded in that town. On his truck were hundreds of watermelons, destined for Lhasa, several thousand kilometers away. He figured the Tibetans would shell out major renmibi for the novelty fruit. His plan was now shattered, but he didn't seem fazed. I imagined that the adventures of that Tibetan, who faced disruptions and weirdness (e.g. me, as well as the local Uigurs) with equanimity, would make a nice low-budget movie. "Lhasa Watermelon Run". Black and white.

So, we ate watermelons while the bridge was being repaired south of the village. We ate so many watermelons, we shat red. There were also these very long noodles ("la mian") served as soup or stew, a regional specialty.

Mani and I played gin rummy constantly to pass the time. If we had another encounter with the police, it's possible that the penalties would be stiffer, so there was always some lingering fear. Mani began to see me as an obstacle. He was a professional photographer looking for novel shots in this part of the world, but my presence screamed "trespassing foreigner". We'd been together a couple weeks now, and he had decided that we our luck was better when he won the card games. In the end, nobody contacted the police to rat on us...I suspect that local dislike of Han authorities benefited us.

After maybe four days we were able to continue. Heading south toward Ali, the memories are dim. In the distance, a convoy of trucks winding slowly up a pass, like ants traversing the edge of a taffy ribbon. Little outposts serving noodles. I got the feeling that the workers in these regions, all male, had been sent out here as punishment. Things were cold and desolate in the Takla Makan desert...beautiful for a traveler, but probably incredibly tedious from the point of view of a companionless grunt. At one stop, however, two pairs of female legs emerged from a truck, and the workers lost any semblance of composure. I assume the women were prostitutes...fairly good-looking, and dressed inappropriately for the cold.

One thing I'll never forget is the golden mountain. It was perhaps 9:00 in the morning and this pyramidal peak must have been dusted with mica or some other reflective mineral. It really gleamed. I urged Mani to take a photo, but he knew that the effect would be was simply a monstrous chunk of gold. So, that intense goldness must be added to the list of amazing things that can't be photographed...

*a deep, blue, cloudless sky
*pure blackness in a cave
*the intense, encompassing whiteness you get when you're walking on the snow, in the clouds, with the sun threatening to break through

Supposedly, K2 could be seen from that region. Nobody was there to point it out amongst the other distant peaks, however.

Toilet paper isn't sold in that part of the world. I found a communist youth magazine that sufficed, however. The right, absorbent texture; nothing glossy. Yes, those pages were endowed with pics of all the revolutionary heroes.

At some point, we were traveling a narrow one way road, to one side a steep bank, to the other a lake. We encountered a convoy traveling in the opposite direction. Neither convoy seemed interested in reversing course. I'm not sure how this conflict was settled. Rather than slugging it out, it seems that both parties decided to relax and snack near the lake; a very sedate game of "chicken". We might have hung there for 2 hours. The incident brought to mind Dr. Seuss's tale of the Zax.


Above is a photo of postcard. Mani made postcards as his livelihood. That's Mt. Mustagh Ata in China. Despite the gentle slopes, it peaks at 7500 hell of a footprint. Actually, the pic was probably taken from the Karakoram Highway on the way to Kashgar, a week or so prior to the travels described above. I'll have to write about that later.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Yeccccchhhh...A Smiling Face in the Sky

Last night, my good friend Kan called, said "look at the moon", and hung up. With the greatest of compassion, she didn't inform me that I was supposed to see a smiley face.

Tonight, the moon has risen another 12 or so degrees higher, placing that smile above the two eyes (Venus and Jupiter). Rotating your head, or your photo, by 180 degrees gives you a frowning face. Hooray!

This astronomical episode sets the geek in me a-spinning. They say that you won't see another smiley-phenomenon like this for another 44 years or so. So how often is it possible to see a be-nosed smiley with a third planet, Mars or Saturn? Well, if you take 50 years as a rough average for the frequency of last night's performance, and you figure that nose only has a couple of degrees leeway between the eyes and the smile, you can multiply those 50 years by 180 (360/2) and get 9,000 years. That's awfully rough, and the frequency is probably even lower if you restrict the nose to a narrow left/right region across the face.

My inner geek also got to wondering about the logistics of seeing a frowning face without rotating head or photograph. I don't think it's possible! To see a "real" frown, the sun couldn't be far off the earth-moon line (otherwise, the moon would be closer to being full, and the smile would be replaced by a gape). The sun would also have to be above the moon from an earthbound perspective. That's necessary to get a frown. But if the sun is slightly above the moon, it'll wash out the planets! It doesn't matter if you're looking at the pre-dawn or post-dusk sky.

It's possible to imagine another solar system with planets that are visible in the daytime. Then you might see a frowning formation. Or, to get really sci-fi, you can imagine a universe with suns that spew rays of blackness into the otherwise ever-brilliant heavens. That would work. Hmmmmm.

I'm in a good mood now, and hereby donate this observation to the "intelligent design" crowd as evidence for a loving creator. Take it before I rescind the offer.

To be clear, the geek only emerged after a good solid gawk. Not once did a smiling face impinge on my consciousness. In "A Beautiful Mind", mathematician John Nash displays his talent for connecting the dots and inventing new constellations on demand. You can call my story, "An Ugly Mind".

Honestly, what's the point of overlaying an awesome display of the night sky with...something else? Even worse is something as banal as a smiley.

A nice candlelight dinner for two couples back in University comes to mind. The food was great, and the company wonderful. And then there was Rachmaninoff's extraordinary Piano Concerto #3. I recall getting horribly tweaked when my company felt compelled to verbalize and reify the imagery that the music stirred in their brains. Noooooo!

Embellishing the already-astounding, be it music, sex, or a celestial display. Just a longstanding pet peeve of mine.