We came to China to explore the rhythm and pulse of life on the fringe, at least to the extent that our ignorance and inability to communicate would allow. Though a bike lets you wander off beaten roads, a hike lets you avoid roads entirely. So for the final few weeks of our China adventure, with boys gone and bikes packed in boxes, Mel and I chose to destroy a different subset of leg muscles on a 150-mile Buddhist pilgrimage kora around the Kawagebo mountains, where Tibet, Yunnan, Sichuan and Burma converge. Saddle sores healed on butts, blistered burned through heels, legs forgot how to pedal and remembered, painfully, how to walk. Pilgrims we were not, in any formal sense, but nirvana it was.
I feel great gratitude for being here, for being, rather, for there is no need to tie oneself to the snow mountains in order to feel free. I am not here to seek the ‘crazy wisdom’; if I am, I shall never find it. I am here to be here, like these rocks and sky and snow, like this hail that is falling down out of the sun.
–Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
Located on the eastern tip of the Himalaya, the Kawagebo mountains divide political Tibet from Yunnan. Two major rivers island the range, the Mekong on one side, the Salween on the other, both gushing into southeast Asia from the Tibetan plateau. Mountain slopes blur the alpine, temperate and tropical, with glaciers from some of the tallest unclimbed peaks in the world melting into lush forests, and forests drying into desert lower down. Swords of rock and ice stab the sky, and soften at the hilt into oases of green. This, more than any place I’ve seen, been, or dreamed, is the fictional ideal of Shangri-la made real, a similarity the Chinese have capitalized on with a tourism campaign declaring Kawagebo as the inspiration behind James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.
Our first few days on trail, we caught some sublime glimpses of the mountains while hiking with Laura Boggess, a dear pal who was based in Yunnan for the summer teaching English. But once she had to leave us – muttering something about “responsibilities” back in the “real world” – the mountains shrouded themselves in clouds of mourning, forcing us to take their existence on simple faith alone. But faith is kind of the point here, a sacred place of pilgrimage for more than 20,000 Buddhists every year.
In village after village, home after home, they served us endless bowls of tsampa and cups of yak butter tea, a much needed complement of calories to our instant noodles diet. For daring epicures, the recipe for yak butter tea is quite basic: take about a liter of tea-seeped water, add two generous handfuls of yak butter, and churn violently until the consistency of melted fat is achieved. Lip smacking! Or lip melding, should you let it cool too much before mustering courage to sip. After tea, the kids in one household we donned all their finest clothing and danced for us, and not to traditional Tibetan music, but heart-throbbing, leg-kicking electropop. Let me tell you, those kids had moves. Later we trekked with horse packers, a posse we dubbed the Kawagebo Kowboys. They shared their food, shared their camping space, and best of all, gave us major street cred with the locals.
The whole trek I marveled at how disconnected we were, they were. This state of play won’t persist, with at least a few kilometers of the kora trail already widened in anticipation of building a road. While the incurable romantic in me deplores the loss of self-reliant modes of living, the realist in me recognizes that not everyone thinks hiking for six days to reach the nearest road is pretty fantastic. It’s fine to lead a simple, constrained life so long as you are content within those constraints – when such a life is sought, not imposed. The kids we met in these villages hunger for Britney and blue jeans, for neatly paved roads leading directly to cities, where all their dreams can surely come true. Even if I don’t share their longings, I am in far too privileged a position to dismiss them.
After we completed the kora, we hiked, then hitched, then bussed, then flew back to Beijing. We’ve spent the past few days here in bright lights big city mode, with our wonderful host and pal Thompson Paine doing his best to tolerate our shocked and giddy reactions to supermarkets (cheese, chocolate, wine, and good coffee were the subjects of countless hours of salivatory conversation while biking and hiking). We went to the Great Wall for some hiking and hawker-dodging, but otherwise we’ve mostly spent hours exploring the city, wandering through the transition back to civilization.
Normally I’m not a fan of cities, but Beijing won me over – and not just its abundance of cheese, chocolate, wine and good coffee. Instead, it was the dancing. At any given park on any given morning, people greeted the dawn with dancing, calisthenics and tai chi. And at night, squares were packed with people swaying, swirling, sashaying, spinning, and otherwise kicking up their heels. From folk to hip-hop to ballroom dancing, the citizens of Beijing love to get their groove on.
My favorite was, curiously, the ballroom dancing. Watching this evoked the same sort of feeling I’d get as a kid, say if I accidently caught my parents dancing in the kitchen, long after I was supposedly fast asleep in bed. It’s not that the dancers are especially graceful or skilled (sorry mum and dad), or the music especially stirring (far from it, emanating from that tinny kitchen radio). Instead, it’s how the dancers move together with deep, spontaneous, unconscious joy and connection.
At the square, stout old ladies with curler-coiled hair pranced next to middle-aged couples gliding with practiced ease. Sometimes partners would spin and swap places with a dramatic, flourished kick, a move that would normally strike me as hilarious, but here performed with such innocence and gravity, by such understated people, I didn’t have the heart to laugh. No one was dressed up. The gathered crowd never clapped. This was no performance; just another summer night in a square in Beijing.
I was content to be a bystander, but as a foreigner in a crowd of Chinese I was an obvious catch/victim. Soon enough a Chinese man set his wife aside and swept me out into the action. Fortunately, the song was over within seconds. Unfortunately, a new song came on before I could flee. So I resigned myself to stomping on toes as my dance partner spun me around in front of a solemn, silent crowd – solemn and silent, that is, except for Mel, who was laughing hysterically at me. As soon as the song was over, I thanked him then lead him toward Mel, determined that my dear friend should have the same rewarding cultural experience. But Mel, who knows me far too well, had all-too-conveniently disappeared in the crowd.
What honestly blows my mind about China is that the elderly in particular have witnessed such anarchy, chaos, and stunning change in their lifetimes, from the Cultural Revolution to capitalism. Yet they still dance. And really, why not? What better answer to chaos and flux than a kick, spin, and flourish?
China is a pulsing, mad mess of contradictions – but so is everything, and everyone. I love traveling because it forces this admission of due complexity in the world, and in ourselves. Boxes burst, categories combust, your carefully constructed pigeon holes collapse under the gravity of their own presumptions. And in the dust and debris that remains when your world sighs and settles down, you might, peering closely, discern some truths. “In the end it is not what I saw or did that is important,” wrote Thomas Pynchon. “It is what I thought; what truths I came to.”
So although the dust has not yet settled on this adventure, this truth I have come to: Life for me is best lived, best felt, in the shadows of mountains, in the distilled air of altitude, and beneath the inscrutable stare of the stars. And this truth — which first came to adventurer Robyn Davidson –I have confirmed:
As I look back on the trip now, try to remember how I felt at the particular time, or during that particular incident, try to relive those memories that have been buried so deep, and distorted so ruthlessly, there is one clear fact that emerges from the quagmire. The trip was easy. It was no more dangerous than crossing the street, or driving to the beach, or eating peanuts. The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision… –Robyn Davidson, Tracks
On that note, I’ll declare Cycling Silk ’06 officially over. Someday we’ll be back to finish riding this road, but for now, it’s time to return to the familiar latitudes of home. Enormous thanks to everyone who supported this expedition, whether through donations to Kham Aid or simply through cheering us on as we bounced along China’s Silk Road. What a wild, astonishing ride.