Repost: “Full Circle”

A few nights ago I was staying up way too late stumbling down the rabbit hole that is the Internet. On a whim I searched for a post I’d written at the beginning of 2009, just after AIESEC United States’ Winter National Conference 08-09, where my term as Local Committee President of AIESEC at Georgia Tech ended. Unfortunately the old AIESEC GT blog, where I’d written the post, was lost in Google’s scorching of all FTP blogs on Blogger. However, that particular post had been copied in full and re-posted on a range voting Yahoo! Group. Since I have just become online services director of AIESEC Life, the AIESEC US alumni association, I have decided to re-post that old bit of euphoric writing in full, for posterity. And maybe for the lulz too.

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On the night of December 29, 2008, I was in a Zen state.

My former teammate and one of the greatest people I have been blessed to know, Tiffany Curtiss, was elected Member Committee President of AIESEC United States in the first free and fair MCP elections in twelve years.

I haven’t cried in a long time, but I came pretty damn close as Missy poured the water on her head and everyone cheered for Tiffany. What was clear to me, though, is that as much as we were cheering for her, we were cheering for the process, for student ownership, for having a voice. For having come so far just shy of six months after the July 4 letter.

The only thought that had space in my head after the bucket fell was back to the weekend of May 12-14, 2006, when I was told “you have no future in AIESEC US” by the top leadership after trying to bring people together and think for themselves. Instead of doing whatever college students do on the weekend, Tiffany and my AIESEC mentor and former LCP of AIESEC LC Cornell, Arthur Maas, spent the entire weekend on the phone with the key players in New York, and when they were talking about “next steps,” Tiffany was talking about right and wrong. Tiffany, of course, was right, and despite being right, her hours and hours on the phone that weekend got me back into AIESEC US. How incredibly appropriate, how it fits in with the music of the Universe. How justice was served and how progress was lifted up!

I turned off my video camera and I walked up to my room, alone. I could barely even shut the door before the immensity of what had just happened washed over me like a tidal wave. I gripped the table and I put my head against the wall. I closed my eyes and let the reality of it flow through every bit of my being. How years and even months ago, this moment was an unthinkable fairy tale – regardless of the winner of the election. I felt like I have not felt in an incredibly long time, and to the powers that put the breath in my lungs, I let forth in an exhale, “thank you.”

Words cannot express the pride I feel that Tiffany was elected MCP.

And finally, mere hours before my term as LCP ended, I was able to participate as a proxy for Milwaukee (Amira taking the seat for GT) in our legislation, where we established our first compendium in twelve years – and I am proud that I was a key part of writing it. I skipped sessions and I stayed up late to work on the constitution and accountability with Jason, and I personally spent the entire day after the election tweaking and perfecting the range voting process, which was one of the final motions we passed – by acclamation. Though it was hard work and it kept me from hanging out nearly as much as I wanted to with the people who matter to me and friends I haven’t met yet, I realized at the end of the conference how much more valuable it was that we spent our time on things that mattered. We did work together, we built the foundations of a new AIESEC US together. That was far better than anything else I’ve experienced at a US conference before, and I hope for the future members that it only grows and does not stop.

While banging the table to close legislation, we heard loud sounds from above – and through the skylights we saw the fireworks heralding a new year. We did it! And the fireworks let everyone know it.

Poetry upon poetry, the formal New Years Eve dinner that night took place in the exact same room as the plenary of the last Winter Conference in St. Louis. My LCP term ended in the exact same room in which it began. A year ago in that room, as we finished singing “Auld Lang Syne,” I thought to myself: “This is either the year AIESEC US will save itself, or the year in which it will be lost forever.”

I could never have pictured us in that same room one year later, triumphant. The truth is stranger than fiction.

A sincere thanks to all of the people who are a part of the fabric that has been my AIESEC Experience thus far. There are many of you to name, and rest assured you will hear it from me soon. But other than Tiffany, the person I must thank most of all is Missy Shields, outgoing MCP and former LCP of AIESEC at Georgia Tech. Without her AIESEC US would not be here today, and I would not be the person I am, plain and simple. She deserves adulation for years and years, and she will be a golden legend for as long as the word “AIESEC” spurs the heartbeats of people looking for a better future.

To you both: because you have changed me, you have changed the world. Hold me to that.

— http://atlanta.nomadlife.org/2009/01/full-circle.aspx

Year End Self-Analysis 2010

In the spirit of former endeavors, I think it’s a good idea to take another look at myself.

Accomplishments

Failures

  • Did not start learning Chinese as early as I had planned
  • Did not land a paying job in DC by the end of the year
  • Didn’t get to cooking enough on my return to the US
  • Gained back some of the weight I lost in China
  • Didn’t get a solid workout schedule going yet in DC
  • Did not couchsurf as much as I would have liked
  • Fell off the BrainCanvas wagon for a while
  • Did not move forward with Entropy after receiving scathing reviews from the business plan analysts
  • Have not picked music back up yet
  • Did not stay out longer to contemplate the Universe at Nam Tso
  • Didn’t take enough risks

Five Pictures to Sum Up 2010

  1. _mg_0933
  2. img_0300
  3. Trippy Buddhist Art
  4. All You Ever Need in China
  5. Walking the Path in Inner Mongolia

Status of NYE 2011 Vision

  1. Making Waves in Washington, DC: I am in DC and I have an excellent internship.  I’ve only just started getting involved in the community though and I don’t yet have a permanent position.  At least I’m here; not sure that I’m making too many waves.
  2. Working Out my Mind, Body and Soul: My mind is getting a serious workout at the Open Technology Initiative.  I have failed to keep my body in shape recently, something I will correct imminently.  And in the rush of getting settled in a new place, I have neglected specific soul-nurturing.  However, being in the same place as Kelsey has improved my general mood and optimism tenfold.
  3. Learned Conversational Chinese: Done.  However, it’s slowly rotting away sans practice.
  4. My Writing is Referenced in Influential Publications: I was hoping this would happen for BrainCanvas, but I did write two pieces for OTI which have been retweeted nearly a hundred times by some focus-specific thought leaders.
  5. Making Music Regularly: Total failure.  Disappointed in myself.

Looking Forward to NYE 2012

  1. Self-Actualization, or rapidly approaching it
  2. Active participation in creative communities – especially musical
  3. Reaching “Authority” Status on a Useful Topic
  4. Have started something influential
  5. Traveled somewhere new and amazing with Kelsey

Kashgar, the Khunjerab Pass, Eid ul-Fitr, and the Way Back

Kashgar, alas and alack, did not impress. I built the concept, the wispy words of friends and former blog posts describing that something which lives in the storied culture of travelers from millennia ago to the present age as “Kashgar,” in my mind too much as a place completely different from China.  In many ways it does differ from the culture of its political overlord, but it’s also disappointingly clad in the same architecture and layout as other Chinese cities.  To make matters more depressing, the old town is under the ball and hammer in a classic example of Chinese “restoration.”

We got a room at the Chini Bagh, which used to be the British Consulate in Kashgar during the “Great Game” of the 19th Century.  I thought we would go to Tashkurgan the following day, but we decided to stay in Kashgar to arrange better transportation opportunities and secure passage to Urumqi.  I gave my dirty clothes to be laundered, and it turned out to be 84 kuai – about five times higher than I ever paid to launder clothes at hotels in China.  Furthermore, the Chini Bagh’s service was generally awful, despite its reputation as one of the more famous hotels in Kashgar.

After eating at a local place, I used the Internet for an hour – had to stay fresh on the job search.  The next morning we secured the room for another night before embarking on some haphazard sightseeing.  Per the Lonely Planet’s one-size-fits-all recommendations, we taxied to a nice mausoleum, the Abakh Hoja Maziri,  and a livestock market with no livestock.  I also came down with a sore throat due to the inefficient, overpowered air conditioner in the hotel room.  It didn’t help that I drank a couple of delicious Sinkiang Dark beers in the cafe of the hotel, thus lulling my immune system into a relaxed state.

Glazed Tile Detail at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Glazed Tile Detail at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Construction Tools at the Abakh Hoja Maziri
Construction Tools at the Abakh Hoja Maziri
Restorative Construction Worker at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Restorative Construction Worker at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Penitent outside Id Kah Mosque
Penitent outside Id Kah Mosque

In the afternoon we strolled around the half-rubble old town.  Historically (i.e. until about 2008) Kashgar’s Old Town was the largest intact authentic Silk Road town, dating from the days when it served as a vibrant hub for the many cultures that passed through its streets bearing all the goods one could want in Eurasia.  The extent to which it has been destroyed is painful to witness, and I think that it is exemplary of cultural-related development in modern China: demolish the real McCoy and put up a fake version of it.  The story unfolding in Kashgar’s old town ties together many of the themes of China’s “growing pains:” transition from old infrastructure to new, forced displacement of residents from traditional community spaces into new high-rise apartments, an overriding focus on municipal district-level quarterly GDP growth, the bizarre preference of Chinese tourists for “Disneyland” culture to authentic artifacts and places, and the central government’s efforts to exert control over restive minorities by undermining their shared cultural heritage.  Note that the images below are not unique to Kashgar; different versions of these scenes are found all over China.

A Hall of Doorways through Walls
A Hall of Doorways through Walls
You Can't Come In
You Can't Come In
The Neighborhood Path to Nowhere
The Neighborhood Path to Nowhere
Uighur Women Walking in the Old Neighborhood
Uighur Women Walking in the Old Neighborhood
A Silk Road Homefront
A Silk Road Homefront
What Happened to the Neighbors Out Back?
What Happened to the Neighbors Out Back?
Historic Neighborhood Restoration in the People's Republic of China
Historic Neighborhood Restoration in the People's Republic of China

Since Kashgar was underwhelming, covered in nasty dust and we had a few days to kill before Eid ul-Fitr, we sought out transport to the Khunjerab Pass, the highest motorable border pass in the world at 4,693 meters – nearly as high as that low-oxygen, high-star count night at Nam Tso in Tibet.  We first sought the services of the folks at CITS, which has an office right next to the Chini Bagh.  Their price to see both Karakul Lake and the Pass was 1,700 RMB for the both of us – pretty expensive.  He called the border office in Tashkurgan to ask about foreigners getting to the border, and the officer told him that foreigners without a forward visa (to Pakistan) could not go up to the Pass.  This disappointed us, but we still wanted to get up into the scenic highlands of Tashkurgan.  The fellow who runs the cafe at the Chini Bagh offered to do the trip for only 1,000 RMB.  We sealed the deal, albeit without the Pass as a part of the package, and proceeded to eat WAY too much da pan ji and tasty yogurt at some place that night.

We awoke the next morning to leave for Tashkurgan at ten on the Karakoram Highway.  The driver pulled over to allow us to buy hot naan bread on the way, surprisingly tasty for breakfast.  We passed Karakol Lake about three hours into the journey; it is beautiful, but the weather was too cloudy for it to be really majestic.  After that, I fell asleep until at some point we had to get out of the taxi and present our passports at a police checkpoint.  In this part of Xinjiang, they also have the silly registration-checkpoint speed limit that Tibet has.  The road was badly washed out in some spots on the Highway.

Arnab on the Karakoram Highway
Arnab on the Karakoram Highway
Me on the Karakoram Highway
Me on the Karakoram Highway

I awoke in Tashkurgan at 15:00, five hours after leaving Kashgar.  We lodged at the ubiquitous jiaotong bingguan or “traffic hotel” where we rested for 30 minutes, then got some laghmian for lunch.  Arnab and I sat around waiting on the driver for an hour or more (during which I burned through more of Team of Rivals) until he finally came down to the lobby and drove us to a couple of sites.  The river delta-meadow at the east end of Tashkurgan is beautiful and idyllic, ringed by massive mountain ranges.  This great peace of cool weather, clean(-ish) air and pastoral quiet was totally sullied when a family living in a concrete yurt there, no doubt spurred on by the presence of tourists, switched on the fake ethnic music.  It was as loud as a rock concert and echoed off all the mountains – and worst of all, the amplifier was pointed directly at the walkway into and out of the middle of the field, where we were strolling.  After we escaped that visual siren’s trap, we climbed up to the ancient fort ruins where I took some more landscape pictures. We then returned to the hotel, ate dinner including Arnab’s precious tudou si, and slept.  By the end of the day, we found out that we wold be able to see the Khunjerab Pass, and we agreed to pay 350 RMB extra to the driver for this purpose.

Welcome to Tashkurgan Deceptively Pastoral Meadow
Welcome to Tashkurgan Deceptively Pastoral Meadow
River in Tashkurgan Meadow
River in Tashkurgan Meadow
"Princess Castle" in Tashkurgan
"Princess Castle" in Tashkurgan
Tashkurgan River Delta Meadow
Tashkurgan River Delta Meadow

The next morning, the 9th of September, we left for the Khunjerab Pass.  The Karakoram Highway here rolls through amazing, epically beautiful scenery through a long straight valley set on either side by world-class mountain ranges, the Karakoram.  Tajiks abound in this part of China, especially in Tashkurgan and the southern valley.  To reach the Pass we had to pay ten kuai and turn in our passports at the customs station just south of Tashkurgan; this earned us a permit to move forward to, but not far beyond, the border.  Along the Highway we passed within about 20 km of Tajikistan, 80 km of Afghanistan, and 40 km of Kyrgyzstan.  One kilometer before the border with Pakistan, we stopped for what seemed like an hour – it was hard to tell since we were 4600 m up and our heads hurt.  When enough tourists queued, the border army police opened the gate, one of the army men sat in our taxi, and we drove up to the border itself at the pass, which is quite wide and long.  The Chinese road is paved right up to the line itself, at which point it abruptly ends.  The Pakstani side of the Highway is a rough dirt track.  We stood in Kashmir, currently controlled by Pakistan, for a bit.  I had to wear Arnab’s coat since it was so cold up there and I was not prepared.  Some Pakistani border guards came and we shook hands with them.  One of them said Arnab “looked Pakistani,” which made him laugh ironically since he’s of Indian ancestry.  After maybe ten minutes, we were shooed back into the cars by the Chinese police.

The Border Permit
The Border Permit
Station South of Tashkurgan
Station South of Tashkurgan
Goats on the Karakoram Highway
Goats on the Karakoram Highway
Karakoram Highway Ascent to the Khunjerab Pass
Karakoram Highway Ascent to the Khunjerab Pass
The Highest Border Gate in the World
The Highest Border Gate in the World
The Border of Kashmir and Xinjiang
The Border of Kashmir and Xinjiang
Arnab in "Occupied Kashmir"
Arnab in "Occupied Kashmir"
Me Straddling Pakistani Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang
Me Straddling Pakistani Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang
Arnab and Me with Pakistani Border Guard
Arnab and Me with Pakistani Border Guard
The Sign Says it All
The Sign Says it All

Thus, on the fifth anniversary of my joining AIESEC, I visited the highest border crossing in the world and stood astride two worlds.

We ate da pan ji in Tashkurgan for lunch and had to pay for the driver’s share.  After we got our passports back, we had an uneventful return to Kashgar.  Upon our return there commenced an episode in which the Chini Bagh did not honor our reservations, so we got a room at the much more pleasant Home Inn just down the street.  At first the concierge said “no foreigners, you don’t have a permit” so I showed him my visa, when he replied “oh, yes you do.”  Do they really believe that foreigners can / do get into the country without the proper paperwork?

I slept fitfully that night and awoke on Eid ul-Fitr, Friday the tenth. We saw about twenty thousand penitents pray at Id Kah Mosque.  I felt disliked by the locals and very out of place.  This was right around the time when Obama had announced the “end” of “combat missions” in Iraq, and it was the day before September 11 and when that guy in Florida said he would burn a Koran.  It may have been my imagination, but it sounded like the imam said “Obama” a lot during the prayer.  This was the first time I had ever seen any kind of Muslim religious ceremony, and I think that Eid ul-Fitr counts as the top example of such an occasion.

The Islamic Faithful along the Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
The Islamic Faithful along the Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
A Man and his Son at Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
A Man and his Son at Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
Men Pray on Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
Men Pray on Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
On Knees for Allah on Eid Ul-Fitr
On Knees for Allah on Eid Ul-Fitr
The Thousands Ruk'u on Eid-ul Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
The Thousands Ruk'u on Eid-ul Fitr at Id Kah Mosque

After the morning ceremony, I relaxed most of the day.  At the infamous Fubar, just outside the Chini Bagh, I met a friendly fellow named Brian from San Francisco.  We talked for awhile about the Karakoram Highway – he was looking to cycle up to Karakul Lake – and agreed to meet for dinner later that night.  Despite it being Eid we had a hard time finding a proper restaurant; the place where we wound up was rather dirty.  At Arnab’s insistence we got da pan ji again.  Arnab, not being much of a drinker, retired after this to prepare for our 24-hour train journey to Urumqi the next day.  I joined Brian at Fubar for a drink.  Before we even reached the bar I started feeling a bit queasy.  In the middle of our conversation at Fubar I had to excuse myself to employ the facilities.  Post-facilities I felt fine again, so it was clear that the da pan ji was bad, though I was the only one to get ill.

The next morning, my final act before departing to the train station was to check my email for any news on DC employment updates.  Fortuna had smiled upon me – I was accepted to a three-month internship at the New America Foundation‘s Open Technology Initiative!  My search for some form of employment had finally come to an end.  I sent a quick positive reply, and we began our grueling nine-day journey from the farthest point in the PRC from Beijing back to the city that had been my home for a year.  Thus commenced my final fortnight in China.

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/prestonrhea/5016453503/” title=”_mg_3403.cr2 by preston.rhea, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4152/5016453503_989b15c418.jpg” width=”500″ height=”399″ alt=”_mg_3403.cr2″ /></a>

Dunhuang: Desert Travelers at the End of China

Saturday the 28th was a largely wasted day spent on the train from Xi’an to Dunhuang, where I arrived at about 09:30 on Sunday morning.   I immediately went to query the ticket office for trains from Dunhuang to Turpan, but their mei you said it all: there are no trains to Xinjiang from Dunhuang.  As a foreigner, they could have been lying to me, but they said the same thing to a nice group of independent Heliongjiang travelers.  They asked if I wanted to join them in hiring a car the next day bound for Urumqi.  I politely declined, explaining that I wanted to stay in Dunhuang longer than one day.  This disappointed me a bit, since independent traveling Chinese would be much more interesting than those traveling in tour groups which seem to make up the vast majority of tourist traffic.  They even looked more interesting than tour groupies; the woman had long dyed-red hair and the man was decked out in desert gear.

I caught a cab to the famous Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse, and I stepped into the cozy courtyard just in time to meet two French folks, Murielle and Mattieu, who have been cycling the Silk Road from France since April and will continue to points beyond through April 2011.  We caught a bus to the Mogao Caves for 9 kuai in front of Charlie Johng’s Cafe, which is in town unlike the duneside guesthouse.  The caves are interesting but very expensive: 180 kuai with an English guide, which is practically necessary since they can get you into some caves you would not see otherwise.

At the caves I saw the first real Tang Dynasty art I had ever seen with my own eyes.  It was brilliant and superbly detailed, an evident example of why the Tang Dynasty is so revered in Chinese culture.  That painting covered the walls and roof of the cave with a reclining Buddha shaped like a coffin.  My favorite cave, though, was Cave 237, which had a super-psychedelic Song Dynasty mural which centered around a guy (a Buddha?) playing a guitar behind his head like Jimi Hendrix, while other Buddhas played in a concert surrounding him, and a supreme Buddha glowing with cool colors pontificated over the scene.  I want that as a poster.  This cave was partially ruined by White Russian refugees who were locked in the caves by the locals after the Russian civil war.  The museum at the Mogao Caves is sharp, but not nearly as interesting as the actual caves.

Mogao Caves Main Hall
Mogao Caves Main Hall
The Dunhuang / Mogao Caves Bus
The Dunhuang / Mogao Caves Bus

We took the bus back to town and ate some food near the market, which is at once interesting and orderly.  I was pleased by the Dunhuang market for simply being the best of both clean / modern and ethnic / interesting; usually in China it’s all blown out to one end or the other, and even the ethnic part is rarely that authentic (except in Hotan). I also began to work out bus transportation to Turpan when I discovered that I would have to go to the other bus station.  I planned to leave the 31st, two days later, to meet Arnab in Turpan.

I tried to walk with a few hostel-mates into the desert behind the guesthouse, but there is heavy risk of a high fine so we didn’t cross the fence.  After all, it’s not possible to hide from the authorities in the desert like it is in the forest.  I wrote some emails that afternoon, and while at the computer I met a fellow traveler named Nathan from Geneva.  He was at the caves with us, and we discussed the possibility of going to the Jade Gate the next day.  Unfortunately, I never got to do that due to time and money constraints.  Two South African fellows, Rudi and Adriaan, became pals of mine for the duration in Dunhuang.  They met a girl at the next hostel named Eva from El Paso, and we all went to town to eat in the market.  The open-air atmosphere made up for the lackluster food.  Rudi wants to get involved in politics in South Africa, which provided plenty of good conversation.  Upon returning to the hostel we enjoyed some peanut cakes, had a couple more beers and retired just before midnight.

Desert Fence
Desert Fence
The Sizzling Dunhuang Night market
The Sizzling Dunhuang Night market
Rudi Can't Fail
Rudi Can't Fail
Eva and the Local Goods
Eva and the Local Goods

The next day I went into town to buy a bus ticket to Turpan, set to leave at 18:00 on Tuesday the 31st to arrive at 05:00 the next day.  Nathan and I ate lunch at a tasty Sichuan place; he mentioned that he will study for a year in Osaka. I informed him of my favorite restaurant to have a nice kao ya sendoff in Beijing the next day before he went back to Geneva.

That evening Rudi, Adriaan, Eva and I made reservations to ride camels and camp in the desert dunes.  It cost 300 RMB total, with 100 RMB up front at the Dune Guesthouse.  A van took us away at five in the evening to the house of Li, the handler.  I downed four bottles of water before mounting the camel, which made me stop twice to micturate before we got to the campsite.  Li had a good sense of humor and sang a lot, even giving instructions in a sing-song voice.  The camels did not run, only walked, and were much more enjoyable than the horses in Inner Mongolia.  The desert sunset fantastically exploded in the sky like an engine of creation and widsom.  We scrambled up the top of an exquisitely seductively curved dune ridge to watch the Sun dip down farther along the Silk Road.  It is a highlight of my trip, although the wind blew and sand got everywhere.  From the top of the ridge, we descended into the dune valley where Li had set up the tents and was cooking our basic dinner of noodles and hard bread.  This valley’s vibe made us feel we could have been anywhere on Earth, even off Earth.  There were no sounds, not even the wind, and we laid back for a few hours to stare at the stars.  I saw a few meteors and several satellites.  Li sang songs and Eva played her guitar a bit; though she did not know that many songs, I was able to teach her “California Stars” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”  We hit the sack around 11:30. I used my camera bag as a pillow.

Desert Shack
Desert Shack
Desert Graveyard
Desert Graveyard
Adriaan's Third Eye
Adriaan's Third Eye
Desert of Legend
Desert of Legend
God's Rays over Dunhuang
God's Rays over Dunhuang

Li woke us just in time for the sunrise, then we rode our camels back to his place.  We payed Li the remaining 200 RMB directly, so it’s clear that he gets his fair cut.  That day I chilled out and read some in Catch-22 before going into town for a quick dinner with Rudi and Adriaan to prepare for the bus ride. Thirty minutes before bus left, I decided to stay one more day in Dunhuang to relax rather than be stuck waiting for Arnab in super-hot Turpan.  I easily transferred the bus tickets to next evening, the First of September.  We walked along the market area while eating an ice cream and caught the bus back to the guesthouse, where we reviewed Adriaan’s pictures form the desert on his iPad.  As the day grew long, we returned to town to eat an extremely delicious rou jia mo.  A few Portuguese travelers invited us to drink some beers with them in the open air market, after which I made the stupid suggestion to go to KTV at Babyface.  It was the worst KTV I have ever experienced: bad song selection, the sound was too quiet, the beers were expensive and worst of all the experience forever tainted the image of KTV to the Portuguese first-timers.  When we left the KTV part of Babyface, we spent two minutes in the pitiful dance club downstairs which had twelve people in it besides we laowai.  As we left, a young shirtless Chinese guy ran after us desparately yelling “Wait! Wait!”  I guess we were the most interesting thing to happen there in a long time.

Li the Camel-Man
Li the Camel-Man
Dunhuang Crew
Dunhuang Crew

I relaxed and read some Catch-22 the next day, then hopped on the sleeper bus to Turpan after eating more delicious chao mian.

All of my photos from Dunhuang can be found here.

The Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

This weekend Lukas, Jerry, David and I absconded with our bodies to enjoy a weekend Great Khan-style in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia (a province of China, not the independent country where I turned down the opportunity to help expand AIESEC).

First we took the Friday evening overnight K263 train to Hohhot, the capital of Nèi Měnggǔ province.  Though not the first “hard sleeper” train I had ever taken (that honor goes to the Qingzang Railway), The K263 was the first sleeper train I had taken which did not have compartments for the groupings of six beds, three in a stack.  There were only walls between every other stack of beds, allowing the feet of abnormally tall people like myself to obstruct the train car’s walkway.  After a few beers and a couple of swigs of the Scottish Collie whisky Lukas brought along, we climbed into bed just in time for the 22:00 lights out.  The nightcap protected my slumber from the rumblings of the K263, even when we stopped in heavily polluted Datong at the unholy hour of about 02:00.

The train pulled into Hohhot at 05:00 the next morning, and we stumbled out into the city which is the butt of many jokes by both laowai and Chinese for its conjured image as a rough industrial splotch on the remote Mongolian frontier.  In the dark of the morning, it seemed to be mostly correct.  Hohhot was not our final destination; we were headed to the grasslands tourism hub of Xilamuren, but the first bus did not leave until 07:00.  Dico’s, the Chinese fast-food chicken chain, was the only establishment open for breakfast near the train and bus stations.  After a terrible breakfast there we purchased our bus tickets to Xilamuren, about 21 kuai for a two-hour bus ride.  In and around the bus station, touts claimed that in Xilamuren the grass was dead because it “had not rained in over a month” and that only their spot had any tall grass.  We ignored their lies; Lukas’ friend had been caught in an Inner Mongolian downpour within the past week.

When the bus platform opened we climbed in the back and watched the drunken or senile (or both) antics of an old bald Inner Mongolian man.  We could not understand his stuttering mixture of what must have been Chinese and Mongolian.  The local bus riders watched him with amusement.  It emerged that he had not purchased a ticket but still expected to ride the bus, and no amount of pleading by the bus driver and the passenger whom he had slighted could get him to move.  The bus pulled out with one too many passengers, but as it reached the gate pavilion a police woman stepped onto the bus and demanded that he get off the bus and buy a ticket for another bus.  He still would not move.  Physically removing him would have been far too embarrassing and a huge no-no in the Chinese concept of “face,” but the driver and police woman found a particularly Chinese solution.  The bus driver announced that there were problems with the bus and so we would have to swap buses.  He pulled back around to the bus platform and ushered everyone off, taking care to get the old man’s scarf off the bus seat where he left it.  Someone then escorted the man back into the bus station while the bus pulled up to the road and the driver instructed us to run after it, and we all jumped on and the door shut with the proper dues-paying passengers safely aboard.  Before the bus could leave the station altogether, the old man came running and yelling along the side and stood in front of the bus, decrying the injustice meted on his head.  I could not see what happened next, but I guess someone physically held him back while the bus entered the streets and drove away.

Hohhot is at the southern base of the Great Blue Mountains which rise to form the grasslands plateau.  The bus ride from the relatively polluted city into the mountains grants the rider with beautiful views of striking green grassy hills and a sky as blue as any Alabama has to offer.   By the time we reached Xilamuren, pollution was a totally forgotten phenomenon.  The wind was brisk and ever-present, like the outlet of a great oxygen factory.  This made us smile; when you live in Beijing, this sort of thing is a pleasure even if you just sit still for hours.

The bus dropped us off in a large tourist settlement full of concrete “yurts,” so we decided to walk up the road to find a car that could take us to a smaller collection of yurts.  Less than five minutes after walking up the main drag of Xilamuren, a woman on a motorcycle asked us where we were going to which we replied “Ulan Bator.”  She offered us a stay in one of her yurts, which she promised were much fewer in number than the large settlement and were suitably far away from this agglomeration at seven kilometers up the road.  After haggling the transport price down to 50 kuai for all of us and 100 kuai total for the yurt she agreed to our conditions.  We waited for about thirty minutes before her older sister took us up to the yurt settlement, which was an arrangement of about twenty yurts of differing amenity levels around a common courtyard.  It was small and nice, surrounded by nothing but grasslands and a few similarly-sized yurt settlements hundreds of meters to kilometers away.

It was only 10:00 so we dropped our bags in the yurt and ordered some goat or horse milk tea, I am not sure which.  The yurt boasted a picture of Kublai Khan at the back and a small table in the middle of the raised platform, which was our sleeping surface.  We relaxed with the tea and enjoyed the view of the grasslands, though the sky was rather cloudy and the air a bit chilly.  After a couple of hours and a few bites for lunch we were ready to ride horses.

Lukas Negotiates the Horse Prices
Lukas Negotiates the Horse Prices

I have ridden horses only thrice, the last time over ten years ago.  Each time I rode a horse that was unruly and would run off from the rest of the group, frightening the hell out of me, especially when one almost knocked my head off by nearly running me into a tree limb.  I told myself that now I am no longer a boy and I should be able to deal with it.  We paid for five hours of horse riding at 20 kuai per person per hour.  The first bad sign came when the guide angrily yelled and cursed at the manager that he had been riding all week and did not want to ride today.  He had a sour and angry look on his face the whole ride and would curse randomly.  Having an unhappy guide is not a desirable thing.

Within thirty minutes, after the horses began to trot and gallop, I was moaning in pain.  My horse’s stirrups were far too short.  Even once I figured out the sort of rhythmic rise and fall to avoid being jostled like a jackhammer by the horse’s trotting, my knees quickly gave out since I could not stretch them into a resting position.  It was like I was squatting the whole time, so I was unable to keep up the proper riding stance.  Plus, I received a terribly painful blister next to my tailbone from rubbing against the saddle.  After two hours of this, I knew I would never make it for three more, even though I felt bad for being the spoilsport to the others’ fun.  David was an experienced rider and Lukas handled his horse well enough, and while Jerry had a tough time of it he was clearly not in the same sad shape as me.  I started screaming with frustration and pain halfway through the ride, to which the guide paid no heed.  Thankfully, we stopped at a hut to relax and enjoy some tea, but every movement was painful.  From that point forward, we rode the horses at a walk back to the camp and everyone was sore.  Even right now, forty-eight hours later, sitting down and standing up is laborious and the blister’s pain has not yet been halved.

We took a couple of hours’ rest in the yurt and instructed the camp’s cook to prepare a roast leg of lamb for us.  After our rest we ordered some regular dishes which were surprisingly tasty albeit expensive since this was a tourist resort.  Upon finishing our beers and the regular dishes, a server brought in the glorious roast leg of lamb and placed it at the center of the table.  Our eyes lit up at its steaming mountains of perfectly-cooked flesh and well-rendered fat over thick, large bones.  The cook provided two knives, and we wasted no time in carving and savoring the flavorful bounty.  Lamb is one of my favorite things to eat in China, but it usually comes low-quality and thinly sliced as the barbecue shish kebab yang rou chuan’r sticks that must accompany any warm night out, and the cold ones too when it’s not so deadly icy that the stall cooks stay indoors.  This leg of lamb was orders of magnitude above those miserable sinews in comparison, cut fresh from a healthy specimen killed that day.  We sliced everything until only a small altar of forearm-sized bones remained on the table.  Coupled with teacup mixtures of Scottish Collie and Pepsi, we were satisfied that we had organized a good dudes’ weekend out.

Sunset of Xilamuren
Sunset of Xilamuren
Remnants of the Evening Feast
Remnants of the Evening Feast

Once we licked our lips clean of the lamb’s flesh, the proprietor called us out to the courtyard in the center of all the yurts to dance around the bonfire with the rest of the Chinese tourists.  We participated for a bit and played the regular laowai celebrities, getting our pictures taken with all of the Chinese people.  We then stepped out beyond the commotion of the techno dance party around the bonfire and walked into the darkness of the grasslands to enjoy the starry night sky.  It was the second-best star-scene I have seen in China, next to Nam Tso lake in Tibet.  Twenty minutes granted us with several shooting stars, possibly of Perseid origin, two satellites, and the full arching band of the Milky Way, interrupted only by fireworks from the courtyard and from other yurt settlements.

Before we made it back to our yurt, a Chinese businessman invited us to join him and his colleagues in their yurt.  We grabbed the two small bottles of Mongolian baijiu we purchased earlier and the large bottle of Pepsi and accompanied him to his yurt.  Eight Chinese businessmen greeted us.  They were just getting started on their evening of drinking, and in the middle of their table sat an entire roast lamb.  Lukas and David had seen this very lamb slaughtered earlier that evening.  They invited us to sit at the table,happy that we had brought a gift of liquor.  Before they carved the lamb, they had us all sing a song from our homelands and drink a full bowl of the 132-proof baijiu.  I sang “This Land is Your Land,” and Jerry sang “Henry the Eighth,” while Lukas sang a Czech song and David sang a Colombian song.  After we sang and downed the strong liquor, we were granted a blue khata scarf, a tradition shared by the Mongolians and Tibetans from their long history of cultural exchange.  The businessmen didn’t sing songs, but the girl who served food sang a song while each businessman stood at the front of the yurt, and when she finished singing he would down the bowl of baijiu and take the blue khata scarf.  Once this finished, one of our hosts began carving the lamb and offered everyone a generous slice, with we laowai receiving the first cuts.

Over the course of the evening we consumed about one-third of the lamb, six or seven slices for each of us.  We were heartbroken that we could not eat more of it, but it was clear that our hosts purchased the lamb more for its “face” value than for the actual enjoyment of its succulent meat.  It was more important for the boss of the company to show that he could buy the whole lamb than it was to finish eating it, a fact bolstered by their generous offerings of very expensive cigarettes – I turned them down because I don’t smoke, but if I was engaging in business negotiations with them I would have to accept and smoke them regardless of my personal practice.  Once we finished eating and chatting, the boss of the company directed us all in a simple drinking game in which he turned away from the circle and beat a plastic bottle with a chopstick while we all passed a pack of cards like a hot potato.  When the boss ceased tapping the bottle, whoever had the pack of cards had to take a shot of baijiu.  This continued for nearly an hour, so by the end of the evening we were all in merry spirits indeed.  During our chat, the businessman who invited us boasted that his son is the official in Beijing’s Chaoyang District (where the Central Business District and my office are located) who ultimately signs off on every construction approval in the District.  We surmised that these men, in addition to being the executives of a textiles company, must be semi-influential Party members as well.

Exhausted from so much eating and drinking, we went to bed at about 23:30 and groggily arose with the Sun at 7:30.  It was certainly hilarious to rise from the floor of the yurt to be greeted by the bony remains of our lamb feast from the previous night.  We chugged some water and set out on a grasslands walkabout.  Unlike the first day, there were no clouds in sight and the sun glowed warmly on the steppes.  We walked for nearly four hours, simply enjoying the perfect quiet and the clean air.  It is incredible that this idyllic natural escape is such a short hop away from the incessant clamor and choking air of Beijing.

Our Gracious Hosts
Our Gracious Hosts
Laowai Grassland Nomads
Laowai Grassland Nomads

We packed up our things from the yurt and caught a ride to Xilamuren’s bus stop, where the first bus to pass blew right down the road since it was full.  Not long after, a Chinese couple in a minivan offered to take us to Hohhot for a fee.  The man driving wanted to milk the foreigners for a handsome sum, but we managed to pay only 25 kuai each – just 4 RMB more than the bus ticket would have cost.  He exclaimed to his wife repeatedly that he could not believe he was taking us for such a small sum.

When we left their van in Hohhot, we ate some spicy noodle soup and then went to the Great Mosque, built in fully Chinese architectural style.  Even the minaret is topped by a Chinese-style pavilion roof, the crescent moon on top offering the only indication that this is an Islamic structure.  You can walk around the courtyard for free, but only people coming to pray can enter the prayer hall.  We spent the rest of the day relaxing in the shade of Hohhot’s completely not-old Old City, a disgusting “cultural preservation” that is full of lowbrow street games and low-quality art auctions.

Relaxing at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Relaxing at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Chinese Minaret at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Chinese Minaret at Hohhot's Great Mosque

We boarded the K90 train, which we dubbed “the famous jiǔ líng,” at 21:21 and laid our saddle-sore bodies right down to sleep.  I was thankful for the shower Monday morning, as none of us had cleaned anything but our teeth and our hands since we left Beijing.  The inexpensive and largely free-form trip was the most fun weekend trip I have taken in China, crowned by our night with the Chinese businessmen.

My Year-End Self-Analysis

Per the advice of LifeHacker.

Done while listening to Neil Young’s “Harvest” Album

Accomplishments

  1. Started a relationship with a wonderful woman
  2. Graduated Georgia Tech with a BS in Electrical Engineering, a Spanish Minor, an International Plan and Co-op Certificate, and a 3.06 average
  3. Took my sister on a cool trip to Spain
  4. Had a fantastic cross-country roadtrip
  5. Summited Half Dome
  6. Drew up plans with Kelsey for Entropy
  7. Got a fine job in Beijing
  8. Started the AIESEC Beijing Trainee Committee
  9. Started BrainCanvas with King
  10. Learned a good bit about my ancestry and shared it with the family
  11. Had a wonderful Blue Plate Special shift on WREK


Failures

  1. Didn’t get distinction for graduating
  2. Lost out on my bid for the MindValley traineeship
  3. Didn’t make it into the NOI BootCamp in DC in July
  4. Didn’t get the Eben Tisdale Fellowship
  5. Didn’t make it past the first round in the Unreasonable Institute selection
  6. Got no job offers from the career fair
  7. Fell off of good updating for BrainCanvas
  8. Haven’t started learning Chinese
  9. Started, then stopped working out again
  10. Poorly handled turning down the AIESEC Official Expansion Mongolia invitation

Five Pictures to Sum Up 2009

  1. Revolutionary Beers at City Tavern
  2. Spain Trip 2009 304
  3. California Roadtrip 2009 433
  4. img_9344
  5. img_9075

Looking Forward to NYE 2011

  1. Making Waves in Washington, DC
  2. Working Out my Body, Mind, and Soul
  3. Learned Conversational Chinese
  4. My Writing is Referenced in Influential Publications
  5. Making Music Regularly

The Mountaintop

I have finished Georgia Tech. I have taken all my finals. Most of the stuff is out of the Duplex ready to go back to Gadrock. Tomorrow morning I head to the Georgia Dome to go through commencement.

And it is looking like I will have quite a plate of options on the table. I have interviewed with / am in the process of moving forward with three different opportunities. One is being on the expansion team expanding AIESEC into Mongolia, and continuing the good work begun by my former comrade Alina and her band of merry Yalies. One is a traineeship for Prime Networks, Ltd., a content delivery network startup in Beijing, PRC. And one is for Mindvalley in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

They all represent radically different possible paths for this new stage in my life. The winds of fortune will have to be read carefully for me to take the wisest path. I intend to be out of the country by August, but if I choose Mongolia I will have to be there by July 1. As the possibilities weigh themselves on my mind at the crossroads, I remember the words of the checkout clerk:

If you want to find the truth, you have to walk through the darkness. In the depths of the darkness where no one likes to tread is where the truth lies.

Those are the words that swim in my head at night when I lay me down to sleep, that buzz through my brain while the steam of the shower awakens me while the morning light streams through the bathroom window. I think they are the calling of my destiny.

But until then, I go with a great companion on a long trip where he will begin his life anew in Seattle, and will drop me off in San Jose, CA; on the way we will commiserate and rest with old friends in Ohio, Kansas, and Colorado; we will hike a bit and chat aplenty. Then I get the pleasure of spending two wonderful weeks with Colin before he begins his MC term working with Tiffany and the others on the AIESEC US Dream Team, the first properly elected and selected such team in twelve years. I’ll also be with my new ladyfriend, exploring San Jo, San Francisco (I’m particularly interested in checking out a Long Now Foundation Seminar!), camping in Napa Valley and culminating in AIESEC San Jose’s Get Golden camping trip in Yosemite over Memorial Day weekend. Then I fly to New York to visit those people beginning their terms on the MC, and then back to Alabama on the first of June for some much needed R & R after five years of mental siege.

So much to try to experience and prepare for before the next chapter begins in this saga. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Drum Circle

Yesterday I took the time to take my djembe out to Piedmont Park at 4 PM, when Shaun said the drum circle folks met every Sunday.

We sat down on a sunny, breezy afternoon in the small stone-paved plaza / overlook next to The Lawn. The core of the circle had already formed – a couple of experienced and well-practiced black conga players, and around them some people with djembes of various sizes. Mine was the largest and deepest. I can’t escape the large instruments.

Shaun played first, and then I played two afterwards. The rhythms were varied, richly textured, and lasted a good long time. I definitely delighted in getting lost in them after I caught my groove. As the player of the lowest-pitched drum I was pretty important so I had to pay attention to providing a reliable beat, rather than indulging in adding garnishes or flair.

As we played to our hearts’ content, people came to sit and watch, to listen. Children played and danced in front of us, and so did some adults – dancing skilfully to the syncopated beats, shaking every axis of freedom with the Sun and the people watching on. There were people unconventionally dressed – throwbacks to the ’60s, some just not locked into the prevailing fashion, one woman looked like an African godmother. As I watched I became entranced by the very beat I was a part of creating. I closed my eyes and let it flow.

As I subjected myself to the charging tide of the beat of which I was a weaver, one of the paddlers on the grand boat down the river of music and art and life that was happening in the southeast corner of Piedmont Park, I thought about a world or a place where this gathering would be frowned upon, or illegal, or attacked. People dressed differently would be shunned, spat upon, pissed upon, attacked with rocks or sticks or bags full of old food. The musicians would be surrounded by the police, their instruments confiscated or smashed on the ground in front of the illegally gathered crowd who would have to flee for their safety, weeping with confusion and anger and desperation if they were caught. And when those expressing themselves were safely detained, the mouthpiece of the regime would declare to the park: “This has been an illegal gathering in violation of the Code of Peace. You are reminded not to attend unauthorized and unsanctioned cultural gatherings at the risk of punishment under the prevailing Ordinances. Return to your homes.”

With that in my mind, I reveled in the small but remarkable moment of expression we were a part of. And I was thankful for the place I lay my head.

Gone Ramblin’

It only just hit me that, oh, I leave for the airport to go to Spain with my sister in a few minutes.

The first time I went to Spain it was like this huge movement and upheaval, but the next time I left the US for another country – to Istanbul, Turkey – it was more like sitting down in a room for 15 hours and then walking out in a new place. It wasn’t a huge upheaval, it was just there. I think that’s when I truly realized that travel had changed me at the core.

I like that a lot. I hope my sister will come to understand the same thing.

Ramblin’ On My Mind

The finals are done.

The room cleanup is done.

And before I go back to my Alabama home, I’ve got ramblin’ on my mind:


View Larger Map

I’m hitting up Boone, NC; Shenandoah National Park, VA; and Roanoke, VA, all for daylight hiking and nighttime jiving. In tow are Shanky, Rob, and one of Shanky’s friends.

On a cold winter morning, in the time before the light, we’ll light out for the territory and come back Friday night.