Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Back from two weeks of traveling. I may write more on this later. Right now, I’m too exhausted to think about it. Now, a related post.

During our vacation, we went to a place in Southeastern Yunnan called Yuanyang. Yunnan is the end of Southwest China. It borders Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Tibet, and is home to something like 26 ‘officially recognized’ ethnic groups. The province is home to most of China’s biodiversity, and it contains a mind-numbing array of biospheres ranging from glaciers to rain forests. This was my second time to Yunnan, so I reckoned myself something of an old hand at the place. Three years ago, I went Tibetan chasing Yunnan’s Northwest. Having been there and done that, my wife and I decided to go towards the border of Vietnam to see jaw dropping rice terraces and break bread with the Yi and the Hani.

Unfortunately, Chinese New Year had passed and the hordes were unleashed. We secured a room at a hotel, but the proprietor’s accent was so thick that I couldn’t understand where the hotel was, or even its name (I googled [Yuanyang + Hotel] and got a list of nameless phone numbers). Our taxi driver took us to the wrong bus station, so we bought a ticket as far southeast as we could get, and looked forward to our transfer eight hours later. The roads were hours of air-condition-less bus, ninety-degree temperatures, and green-faced motion sickness. Bump after bump, we trundled towards our nameless hotel.

We arrived in Gejiu, our transfer location, at about 4 PM. The tickets for busses to Yuanyang were all sold out. But, maybe they weren’t. Everyone had such thickly accented, mouth full of bread and stones Mandarin that I couldn’t figure out what they were saying. Now, to give myself some credit, my Mandarin is good, and years at a Chinese restaurant taught me to deal with all sorts of different accents. But here was something I’d never heard. The sounds were familiar enough that I felt I should understand, but left me humiliated because I couldn’t. Desperate, we hired a cab driven by a swarthy, pockmarked, flip-flop wearing middle-aged man who insisted we’d get there without a hitch.

We did not get there ‘without a hitch.’ Yuanyang is on top of a mountain ridge, and the roads are two hours of the Mount Washington auto-road at insane Chinese speeds. Also, our driver decided to put us in a cab with his friend, who was “very familiar with Yuanyang.” So, halfway to town, we switched cars as traffic zoomed in both directions and each passing car promised to knock us off a two thousand foot precipice.

Once we arrived in town, we gave each other a, “This can’t be it” look. Yuanyang is perched on a ridge. Each side of the street gives a different view of mountains. It seems that the only things holding the town in place are the multiple piles of refuse weighing it down. Our opinion would probably have been better if we hadn’t been so travel weary, but at least we had beds to look forward to. Unfortunately, our new driver, who was much more familiar with the town, took us to the wrong hotel and drove away. I called our hotel’s phone number and a man answered. “Hello, we’ve booked a room at your hotel. Where are you?” “Mfph a-ge bridge mutter mutter.” “I’m sorry, can you say that again?” “Mfph a-ge bridge mutter MUTTER.” “Wait one moment. Can you say that a little slower?” Click. So, we walked. Soon we came upon a portly teenager.

The young, even in remote areas, tend to speak pretty decent Mandarin. Upon seeing our Buddha, I accosted him saying, “Friend, I’m sorry to bother you. But we’re a bit lost and I can’t understand anyone here.” He replied in beautiful mandarin, “Oh, no worries. I’ll help you.” I called the hotel again, and I immediately handed the phone to our savior. “Hello, I’m here with two foreign friends who can’t find your hotel.” A moment later he realized that his mandarin was as useless as mine. Then it was more, “Mfph a-ge bridge mutter mutter.” He hung up my phone and said, “I’ll take you there.” After ten minutes of walking up and down stair-lined alleys the Yi version of Kim Jong-il checked us into our dirty, urine smelling hotel.

Now, to the point. Liminal zones are frightening places. Both physical and metaphorical transitions unease us. It’s the rare person who can enter a liminal space comfortably and emerge unchanged (if they do, is it even a liminal zone?). Borders are the liminal zones of a country. Despite all the efforts of the political and cultural center, regions such as Coos (pronounced Co-os), New Hampshire; Belgium; Yuanyang; and the West Bank are uncomfortable for most visitors. Power means that borders will always exist. Perhaps the tension between the assertion or existence of something truly local (regional dialects) and its conflict with our familiar hegemonies leads the outsider to feelings of powerless confusion. You expect the normal to be stripped away in foreign places, but the combinations of familiar and alien, and half-comprehension found in border regions is much more jarring. Yuanyang jarred me. For most foreign travelers, all of China is alien. For me, it’s quotidian. Yuanyang was different in a way I wasn’t prepared for.

At least I know I’m not alone. Chinese people have been aliens in regions that are ‘politically’ China for thousands of years. So, I end this post with what originally inspired it. Two poems from the Tang dynasty (see my first blog post) on the western borders.

Both poems are by Wang Changling 王昌龄 (698-757?), and are written in the Han Dynasty (207BC-220AD) Music Bureau (yuefu) style.



Border Rhapsody A

Cicada chirping:
In empty forest of mulberry.
Early Autumn,
To the pass that takes us west.
We leave our borders,
Returning in the cold.
Everywhere, yellowed grass.

Men, from the other side of the country
Come together to grow old in dust and sand.
Un-educated, our traveling heroes.
Only interested in bragging about their horses!



Border Rhapsody B

Horses drink,
Then ford the autumn river.
Frigid water,
Wind like blades.
Expansive sand,
Never ending day or night.
Faintly, we see a river.

Long ago, there were battles at the great wall.
Everyone speaks of lofty heroism.
The yellow dust, spreading from the ancient times to today.
Bleached bones stick from the sand chaotically.

1 comment: