Category Archives: diaries

Week 4: Beyond the Kitchen Window

What follows is an installment of my Writer’s Diary, which for twelve weeks I am sending every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Hello! And thank you for spending a moment
in this moment—with my words.

The first thing to say is that I hope that you and your people are safe.

This morning in L.A. was the first since 1992 that the National Guard has walked these streets. The last time before that was in 1968. Each time it has been for the same reason: to suppress widespread, violent protests that began after policemen brutally attacked a black man.

I don’t have the answer. But I know that today I can’t write about a cheese board, which had been my plan. It’s not that food isn’t important, but there’s a man named George Floyd who will never eat another meal. My heart hurts.

There are thousands and thousands of protestors
across the country who have had rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray fired at them, harming their bodies and particularly their lungs.
Right now, in the middle of a respiratory pandemic, a pandemic that is disproportionately harming black communities.
As they protested the death of yet another black man whose last words were, ‘I can’t breathe.’

Yesterday, when I meant to work on this newsletter,
I instead compulsively watched live TV of the protests here in Los Angeles. It consisted mostly of aerial shots of the crowds. Helicopter’s-eye-view: the native medium of L.A. television.

From so far up in the sky, you couldn’t make out people’s faces, their humanity. You just saw a mass of people roiling in front of the police lines. An SUV was burning and others had been covered in graffiti. You could see police aiming their big guns at the ground. At the bottom of the screen a chyron read, “POLICE VEHICLES BURN.” Above this, in tiny type, it said, “George Floyd Death Protests.”

The main Saturday protest was not far from where we live, and I thought about joining. But I found out about it late, and I’m scared of violence and don’t want to march with people who are breaking things. Excuses were made. Instead, I made a sign saying “Black Lives Matter” and put it in my office window. It felt like a half-measure, but at least it gave me something to do.

Around six o’clock, my phone honked
with a Public Safety Alert: the mayor was imposing an 8pm curfew. Lisa and I decided to go for a walk before then, to ‘take the temperature on the streets,’ as I put it. At first things seemed quiet, if on edge. The main sound was the buzzing of helicopters. I counted seven, up there near the first-quarter moon.

Dazed-looking protesters sat on the curbs of Fairfax, a few still holding cardboard signs from earlier in the day. Some were trying to summon Ubers and Lyfts to take them home before the curfew, but the people running the rideshare apps had decided to cut off services in the area of the protest.

A giant pickup truck waited on the side street across Fairfax. It had a menacing look, with a half-sheet of spray-painted plywood strapped to the outside of the driver’s side door. I worried it might be some counter-protester, a racist hick looking to pick a fight. But when it pulled out onto Fairfax I could read the spraypainted words, “I CAN’T BREATHE / BLACK LIVES MATTER”.

We walked south. Down a few blocks we saw emergency vehicles, lights flashing, blocking the entire four lanes of Fairfax. We’d seen enough, and we turned down a side street, back towards home. We passed small groups of protesters. Everyone wearing masks.

It was a warm night. The street trees were full of fragrant blossoms.

When we came to the corner of the street we live on, I noticed smoke rising to the south. There was a lot of smoke, billowing into the sky, a police chopper circling low over it. I decided to take a picture with my phone, trying to frame it to include smoke and helicopter, a few protesters down the block, and a flowery hedge in the foreground that made the scene feel incongruous, apocalyptic.

Right as I was snapping my picture, a car gunned its engine and charged into the intersection. We turned and watched as tires squealed, the car drifted. It was a maroon sedan. It turned and kept turning. It was doing a donut, right there in the intersection, not ten feet from us. Time slowed down. I could see the driver: white, maybe thirty or forty, hair cut short. Not a protester. The car’s tires clipped the opposite curb and the driver gunned the engine again, doing another donut, swinging near again, rubber burning. Lisa grabbed me and pulled me away. We hustled behind a parked car.

Finally, he drove off. Doing 40 or 50 mph down our street, barely braking for stop signs. We walked home as fast as we could, wondering if we might have just been menaced by one of the men from the apocalyptic civil war cult we’d both read a long, scary article about.
Lisa and I shut every window in the apartment
and closed every blind—the first time we’d done this since moving in months ago. Our living room was still loud with whining sirens and the terrific din of a half-dozen police choppers hovering over the neighborhood. I stared at the live helicopter feed on my phone with the sound turned off. I wanted to know what the police were doing, whether the protesters were getting closer, as the sound of the police choppers suggested. But the camera operator kept the shot zoomed in on a shoe store that was being ransacked by a crowd of maybe 20 people.

I watched, entranced, as people ducked under the metal grating, which one man was holding up. A minute later, they’d come out with a few shoe boxes. Was this really what you wanted to steal most? What if you got the wrong size? The potential consequence—entering our profoundly punitive criminal justice system—seemed to me to be totally unworthy of a pair of overpriced shoes. Finally I mentioned my confusion to Lisa, who was sitting next to me on the couch, staring with a look of horror at her own phone.

“I don’t think it’s about the shoes,” she said.

As soon as she said it, it became obvious:
of course it’s not about the shoes. This was another type of protest, a more impulsive, opportunistic one. My understanding turned on its head, and now I could hardly believe my earlier confusion. Thinking like that was partly a consequence of the camera’s insistent framing of what was happening as just one thing: looting. It was infuriating—here the TV station had a tool that could be used to give us a real sense of how things stood, whether things were spiraling out of control, what the police were doing. Instead they focused solely on this prurient image of a handful of people stealing a handful of relatively inexpensive goods.

When I finally turned my screen off, I could hear through the window the tell-tale *whumph* of tear gast canisters being fired, sounding so much like the launching of fireworks.

I thought about what a shame it is that when our capitalist overlords destroy and steal, their crimes are so much less telegenic than these ‘looters.’ When billionaires, led by Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, increase their wealth by half a trillion dollars during this pandemic, there’s no camera circling overhead, framing it as a despicable travesty. As the U.S. government made decade after decade of decisions that ensured Native Americans would remain, after half a millenium of colonization, radically more vulnerable to disease than white people, where was the helicopter shot? When vulture capitalists swarmed in during the Great Recession to buy up foreclosed homes in black communities, making “the homeownership gap between blacks and whites … wider than it was during the Jim Crow era,” where the fuck were the news helicopters?

This morning when I drew back the blinds
on my kitchen window the first thing I saw was a woman walking down the street carrying two brooms and a dustpan-on-a-stick. Their cardboard wrappings revealed they were fresh-bought, probably from Tashman Hardware up the block. She was headed towards Fairfax, to help clean up.

After breakfast, Lisa and I walked the three blocks down towards Melrose. As we neared this major shopping thoroughfare, the sidewalks filled protesters carrying signs, curious locals, media. The feeling was less tense than the evening before. Still, I only saw one person out with a kid.

Where our street comes out onto Melrose, there was a broad police line, behind which firemen worked to douse a smoldering storefront. It had held a nail salon called Pearls and part of the Shoe Palace sneaker empire, which stretches across three storefronts. Firefighters had been trying to control the blaze all night. Steam and smoke rose in damp curls.

Across the street, a half-dozen black-clad protestors were hard at work cleaning graffiti off the window of a barber shop. Others were sweeping up broken glass, trying to clean up the mess of the night before. The protesters who try to stop vandalism, who clean up from destruction, all while putting their bodies on the line for the same cause—we hear so much less about them. They are less photogenic. They’re less sensational. Their actions don’t play as obviously into our culture’s stereotypes about struggle.

I return to the eternal question: what is to be done?
Stay safe, first, and take care of your people. Beyond that, I don’t think there are easy answers. However I do know of two things that you really should do, as soon as possible.

  1. Read this essay by Kareem Abdul-Jabar. Before you judge anyone for stealing a pair of sneakers, read this article. Especially if you are white. Really, it is not to be missed.
  2. Give money to your local bail fund. Here is the one I’m donating to, in L.A. During a summer when jails are among the worst loci of covid-19 infection, getting protesters out from behind bars has never been more important.

I hope this week brings peace and justice. Please reach out if you have a suggestion for what I should be doing to further this struggle. Let’s keep working together. And maybe next Sunday I’ll be able to write about that cheese board after all. See you then.

May 31, 2020

Week 3: Sauerkraut

What follows is a sample of my Writer’s Diary, which I currently email out every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your inbox, subscribe here.

Hello—and a good Memorial Day to you!
This is coming a day late, but isn’t the Monday of a three-day weekend really, on a spiritual level, a Sunday?

My whole life I’ve thought of Memorial Day as the “unofficial beginning of summer.” Somewhere along the line I also learned that it’s the date after which it’s “okay” to wear white. A good weekend to barbecue!

Yesterday it hit me more than it has before that our cheery little day off is, to take it at its word, supposed to be a day to memorialize the soldiers—humans, mostly men, mostly about my age or younger—who lost their “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver put it, working for Team U.S.A. in the bloody ritual sacrifice by which our species has often resolved its disputes. It’s so intense. I’m not un-grateful for the sacrifice of these men and women. They were brave. I’m especially glad they beat the slavers and the Nazis. The British Empire, too. But more than anything, I wish they hadn’t had to die.

The idea of a memorial has so much power in it. Memory is a fragile thing. It needs preserving—and celebrating.

The physical memorial that inspires the most feelings in me has to be the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. A depression in the National Mall, filled with a vast horizontal monolith. When you get up close you can see the name of every single young man who died in that war, etched on the black stone. Phonebook-thick catalogs are available to locate a particular name from the 58,220: the name of a brother, uncle, father, son, friend. Maya Lin’s design famously captures both the vastness of the loss and the particular tragedy of each missing life.

We need more memorials. A gun violence memorial. A covid-19 memorial. We need to remember. We need to give ourselves space and time to grieve—and to work collectively towards the goal that these stupidities never happen again.

That’s what I’m thinking this Memorial Day.

After writing the preceding paragraph, I found this Sunday’s New York Times at the grocery store. In a small but beautiful way, it actually does this. The first four pages of the paper memorialize 1,000 of those killed by the pandemic. I recommend taking the time to read some of these names—and the brief descriptions that run alongside them, spare silhouettes that gesture at the full lives we have lost.

I’m honored to have you reading my writer’s diary for a third week now! I’m trying not to dwell too much on the pandemic, as I figure you spend enough time thinking of that without my help. Instead, I continue to be excited to talk to you about my food and the writing life.

This week, I have been full of thoughts about storytelling. Telling a story is so human, so universal. What kid hasn’t found themselves, after an unusually momentous day at school, suddenly excited to answer the eternal question, ‘How was school today, honey?’

‘Mom, you wouldn’t believe it…’

Yet when you call yourself a writer and try to tell a good story, it can seem suddenly, damnably hard. It’s a mystery. I’ve tried to solve this mystery by reading books about the craft of writing. (Some are really quite useful!) I’ve attended lectures, spent mornings deep in writing workshops, and acquired an MFA. I’ve even tried out one of those Hollywood plot formulas called a ‘Beat Sheet.’

But the best way, bar none, that I’ve found to learn about storytelling is to pay attention to the great stories I encounter out in the wild. Some are in the form of novels, movies, magazine articles, histories, podcasts, parables. Others are the stories friends tell—the ones that have me sitting on the edge of my seat, laughing along, asking ‘Then what happened?’

Here’s a story: When I was three, maybe four, my parents took me on a trip from our home in rural Northern California down to Los Angeles to visit my grandma Mimi, who lived in a condo in North Hollywood. I remember very little about this trip, except for one event—and I remember this event because my grandma never let me forget it.

Mimi was born Mary Anne Morar in Canton, Ohio in 1924. Her parents were each freshly naturalized American citizens. They had separately left Romania to seek their fortunes in the U.S., where they met, married and spent the rest of their lives together. So Mimi grew up in an ethnic enclave of first- and second-generation Romanian immigrants based around the Romanian Byzantine Catholic cathedral there. While Mimi was as American as April in Arizona (in Nabokov’s phrase)—even serving heroically in the Second World War—she always spoke Romanian with her parents, she briefly imported a handsome young Romanian man to be her second husband, and when she passed away last February, at 95 years old, she left behind a small family foundation dedicated to the study of Romanian culture.

Mimi was an excellent Romanian cook, a master of mamaliga, cornulete, and, especially, sarmale—the Romanian version of Pigs in a Blanket. This is where our story truly begins. Because, you see, even as a young child I was a vegetarian. Were a few morsels of salmon to be placed in a dish in front of my high chair, I would cast it to the ground. When my dad dangled a choice bit of flank steak in front of my mouth, I pressed my lips firmly together until he laughed and gave up. I steadfastly refused to take even a single bit of meat. By all accounts I was a pretty easygoing kid, but when it came to meat I was as willful as they come. I have always struggled to articulate the root cause of this inborn vegetarianism, but from birth I basically forced my parents to accomodate it.

This was all well and fine with my generous parents, but when we visited my grandmother and took our meals at her table, it was hard for her to understand it. How would I grow up to be a proper Romanian if I couldn’t eat most Romanian food? (Like so many diasporic communities, ours was within two generations reduced mostly to a cuisine.) She encouraged me to at least try sarmale. She was sure that I would discover it was delicious. The flavor of ground pork, rice, and herbs, all wrapped in a big, pickled cabbage leaf and baked till the flavors mingled into a thing of beauty—what Romanian boy would turn his nose up at that?

I understood how important it was to my grandma that I try this dish, and I really wanted to make her happy. At the same time, I found myself haunted by this phrase, ‘Pigs in a Blanket,’ that everyone kept using to describe the sarmale. It was terrible to think of eating a cozily snoozing animal. I spent a long time thinking about it, and then one evening before dinner I told Grandma that I wanted to try her sarmale.

She was delighted. I remember that very clearly.

For an hour we could both believe that I was going to fulfill her wishes. But then we were all seated at her table, under the chandelier. The sarmale was served. There it was on my plate. The pickled cabbage wrapping was greenish and slightly translucent, a few wisps of steam betraying that it had just come out of the oven. It smelled of cooked cabbage, of brine, and of the umami of browned meat. It smelled good.

I tried, I really did. I picked at it. I sawed off a sliver of cabbage and ate it. I unwrapped till I got to the meat, and then I tried to get my nerve up to eat it. I couldn’t eat it. I wanted to have eaten it. I avoided my grandma’s hungry eyes and pushed the meat around with my fork. I took another little bite of the sour cabbage. How could I get the meat to go away? How could I get myself to eat it?

Finally Mimi couldn’t help herself. She said, ‘Jasper, are you going to eat your sarmale?’

‘Yes, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I am eating it…’ Here I apparently paused for dramatic effect. Then I said, ‘Methodically.’

Do I really remember saying this? My grandma probably told me the story fifty times. She loved it. I think somehow that the improbable precociousness of a four-year-old dodging his pushy grandma with the perfect $10 word must have so tickled her funny bone that it made up for the sorrow that I refused to eat her prize dish. She was a kindergarten teacher who loved telling stories and dreamed of one day writing her own novel. It was enough that young Jasper loved words.

I do remember sitting there and looking at the wrapped meat dumpling on my plate, feeling nauseous. I remember the chandelier. Maybe most of all I remember the smell of the cooking sarmale, the rich cabbage and pork smell, the smell of grandma’s house before her famous Romanian dinners.

Why did it work as a story when Grandma told it? Well, it had a good punch line. It was somewhat unusual, had different particulars than other stories. But I think the best part was the joy that she took in telling it. She savored how uncomfortable I had been. It was delicious to her how much she had wanted this thing from me. The pathos of it were so intense, the way she told it. And then they were resolved in such an unlikely way. Listening to her tell the story—that’s where so much of the pleasure was. It was in the telling. It was in her joy.

In the last years of her life, my grandma Mimi lost most of her memories. It was the gradual, inexorable progress of Alzheimer’s disease—every month that went by left her a little more childlike. The body, a vessel filled by nine decades of experience, became empty once more. By the end, most of what remained was her glinting soul, and it was a blessing that Mimi was quick to smile and easy to get laughing, even when she was disoriented and swimming in a sea of confusion.

In the logic of ‘first in, last out,’ many of the memories that lasted the longest were those of childhood. Mimi would talk about her father’s backyard garden and his barrel of sauerkraut in the basement, next to the illicit, treasured barrel of wine. (Prohibition was still in effect.) She would describe the big feasts put on by the Romanian church, and how there would be dancing afterwards.

Around the time last year that Grandma passed away—with all her progeny at her bedside—my dad became very interested in making his own sauerkraut. Just like great-grandpa Vasile, Dad had his own cabbage patch. Now all he needed was to send off to Ohio Stoneware for a pair of three-gallon crocks and he could, in more than one sense, keep the old culture alive.

After his first batch, he gave me an enormous glass jar packed with fermented cabbage to take home with me. Lisa and I ate it all. It was delicious.

A few months later, I was visiting him and noticed a big box of cabbages from the farmer’s market. They had been purchased to make more kraut, but my dad felt like he’d missed the window of opportunity. The cabbages were too old now.

‘What?’ I said. ‘That’s ridiculous. Why don’t I take the cabbages and one of your crocks, I’ll ferment them, and then I’ll give you a big jar of kraut ready to eat?’

This is how I acquired my prize crock: highway robbery. It’s also how I learned to make saurkraut, Romanian style.



This sauerkraut, properly known as varza murata, differs from the classic German-style sauerkraut in one major way: the cabbage is not shredded before fermentation. Instead, it is kept whole (or halved or quartered), so that the leaves may be used later as the wrapper for sarmale. This means that the juices of the cabbage cannot provide, on their own, enough liquid to cover the cabbage. You have to add brine.



A Really Big Wide-Mouth Jar or Small Crock
A Weight to Hold the Cabbage Down – (the simplest version is a plate slightly narrower than the jar, weighted with a river stone that has been boiled and scrubbed)



Cabbage – 4 medium heads, cored
Kosher Salt – 1/2 cup (do NOT use iodized salt)
Water – 16 cups
Whole Black Peppercorns – 2 tablespoons
Garlic Cloves – 4-8, cut in half
Bay Leaves – 2
Fresh Dill – a small bunch (optional)
Fresh Horseradish – two inches, split into sticks (otional)



1. Boil the water and salt, stirring till the salt dissolves. Allow to cool.
2. Pack the jar with the cored cabbage and other ingredients. If you want to, you can halve or quarter the cabbages so they fit more tightly.
3. Pour the brine to cover all the cabbage with about an inch of brine.
4. Place the weight on top, making sure that all of the cabbage is submerged.
5. Cover with cheesecloth and place in a dark corner of your home. The crock should ideally stay around room temperature, but if it’s in a cool place it will just ferment more slowly.
6. Wait four weeks, regularly checking to make sure everything is submerged, adding more brine if need be. You can also ensure that no molds are forming.
7. Around week three, begin tasting your kraut. It should get more and more sour. At a certain moment, it will be perfectly sour for you. This is the time to radically slow down fermentation by transferring the kraut to a jar with a lid and putting it in the fridge. It is ready to eat!


Serving Suggestions

Cut into narrow strips, it makes a delicious small salad.
As a sour addition to crunchy salads.
On top of nachos.
On top of a fully dressed baked potato
In breakfast tacos that are also filled with scrambled eggs. (Surprisingly delicous.)
Beside pierogis or latkes, along with sour cream and apple sauce.
With vodka.
With sausages, vegan or otherwise.
As the wrapper for a mystical vegetan version of your grandmother’s sarmale. (I still need to try this one.)

I’m afraid I don’t actually have a picture of my or my father’s Romanian-style sauerkraut. We’ll have to make do with this picture of the 3-gallon crock I stole from my dad. In the picture it had just released a deliciously sour batch of more German-style kraut—a scrumptious pink from the blend of red and green cabbage. This one I mixed up following the recipe in Sandor Ellix Katz’s book Wild Fermentation. If you are interested in fermenting some food of your own, GET AHOLD OF THIS BOOK. Here’s his bio: ‘Author Sandor Ellix Katz is a self-described ‘fermentation fetishist.’ His explorations in fermentation developed out of overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition, and gardening. A long-term HIV/AIDS survivor, Katz considers fermented foods to be an important part of his healing. A native of New York City, the author is a resident steward of Short Mountain Sanctuary, a queer intentional community in the wooded hills of Tennessee.’ How terrible it would be not to have this encouraging, non-prescriptivist fermentation fanatic guiding us on our journeys!

One of the very best movies I’ve seen this year is The Florida Project. (It streams for ‘free’ on Netflix.) Like Mimi’s story I think this film’s excellence has something to do with the joy of its telling. It is a hectic, harrowing story of what it’s like to be a little kid in difficult circumstances: your young mom is sometimes turning to sex work, there’s no dad in the picture, you’re being raised in a long-term hotel in the shadow of Florida’s Disney World, and the most responsible adult you know is the delapidated hotel you live at’s manager, an overworked and precariously employed man (played by Willem Dafoe). The hotel manager knows what she doesn’t—that her innocence won’t last forever. He and the girl’s mother, flawed people, do what they can, in a society that relentlessly exploits and punishes its weakest members, to protect her precarious childishness. Watch it!

(& if you enjoy The Florida Project, consider reading “The Magic Kingdom,” a long essay in The Baffler about the film, and Disney World, and the American imagination.)

The other night, around midnight, Lisa already asleep, I was doing the dishes by the wide open window, through which a soft, warm breeze was blowing, when a powerful feeling came over me. It had wrapped up in it longing, possibility, being-in-nature, and contentment. It washed through my bones.

Though the moon was a waxing crescent, the way I felt I can only call Warm Night Full Moon Feeling. I have felt it before, sitting outside, all alone, under the summer stars. It feels like nature is on your side and you on its. Like everything is possible, everything is just a story. Like the air is there for breathing and you can feel the moonlight on your skin. Like the night will never end.

I hope that this summer you get some Warm Night Full Moon Feeling, too.

Till next week,

May 25, 2020

Week 2: the Great Sandwich

What follows is a sample of my Writer’s Diary, which I currently email out every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your inbox, subscribe here.

Hello! I’m glad to have you again for another installment of this, what I’m calling a writer’s diary. Though to be honest, when I’m really writing in my private diary, it’s not with you guys in mind. Sorry. This here is a diary more in the sense of a video game development diary—a genre often ignored but that offers real pleasures.

The best word for what this is, this lump of words and pictures and personality that has come to rest in your inbox, might really be a “blog post.” I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I love and miss the Golden Age of Blogs (1999-2008; RIP).

What was so great about the blog was that everyone had one and some people had interesting ones. It didn’t hurt that the underlying software was open source and operated according to clearly understandable rules: if you published a new post, everyone subscribed to your RSS would get it in their feed. But what your website looked like, how you wrote, how often you posted—that was entirely up to you.

This open format has since been replaced by the ‘walled gardens’ of Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, etc. They are walled because they don’t let outside programs or websites operate within their bounds, nor do they permit users to see outside content except in very curated ‘previews.’ They are gardens because team of algorithmic and human gardeners go around snipping off non-conforming content, keeping things tidy, and deciding what gets shown to whom. There is none of the strobing type of Myspace, none of the happy hyperlinking of Blogspot. On the anarchy <—> totalitarianism spectrum, they tend strongly to the right.

It’s funny that ‘walled garden’ is the operative metaphor for contemporary social media. Our word ‘paradise’ comes, etymologically, from the Avestan pairidaeza by way of Greek –> Latin –> French. And pairidaeza means ‘An enclosure, a park.’ Like the OG paradise, Eden. A walled garden.

In this last sense, today’s social media giants can each be described as an attempt at paradise.

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Eden anymore.

That’s right—we’re in E-mail! Strange enough, email is among the last true frontiers of the internet. (Funny that it was one of the first, too.) This social medium operates entirely over open protocols. Anyone can make an email client. Anyone can send an email. It’s a chaotic, anarchic place. You have to dodge spam, continuously unsubscribe from the deluge of corporate newsletters, and ignore the chain letters of your relations. And yet, I think some of the utopian promise of the internet remains here.

Thanks for meeting me here, beyond the walls, where we can be free.

When I told Lisa what I’d realized—that my food-themed email diaries were really a sort of blog—she said she agreed. Then she laughed and told me that it reminded her of the Cheese Sandwich Blog.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘The term comes from back when blogs were a thing,’ she said. ‘People were critical of the way that bloggers would be like, ‘Today I had a cheese sandwich, and, uh, I watched some TV.’’ These blogs were ridiculed, she explained, because their authors had nothing to say and yet they wanted to have a blog, too, just like everyone else. What’s funny looking back is that today’s most popular social media app, Instagram, is basically a distillation of the Cheese Sandwich Blog, with the words removed. Maybe the Cheese Sandwich Blog was the only type of blog people ever needed…

Nonetheless, I felt a little embarrassed that my unique, special snowflake, gold star email diary had at its core this warmed-over concept, one that the blognoscenti had begun mocking a full half-my-lifetime ago. Did anybody really want to read about my cheese sandwich?

After spending a while feeling sad for myself, I baked some olive bread, craved a sandwich, and realized there was nothing for it but to make a Great Sandwich—and write all about it.

I know it may seem a little highfalutin’ to call this a “Great Sandwich,” but that really is what this sandwich has been called for my whole life. It is the trademark dish of my aunt MaryEllen. I first had it when I was three and she and her kids—my older, cooler cousins Jessica and Zach—came to housesit and stay with me while my mom and dad traveled to a nearby hospital where they hoped to give birth to my younger brother. It was an enchanted visit, largely because a giant gray whale had recently washed up on Bowling Ball Beach—the most interesting thing that had ever happened—and MaryEllen regularly took me to go visit it. It was also exciting because my aunt regularly made the most delicious sandwiches. I would beg her, ‘Will you please make one of your Great Sandwiches?’ She did almost every day. They were so good.

Eventually my parents returned, now with a little baby who I begged to be allowed to hold. (They let me hold him only with serious supervision.) MaryEllen left, but I never forgot her great innovation. For years afterwards, I would ask my mom to ‘please make one of MaryEllen’s Great Sandwiches?’ Later we dropped her name and just called them what they were: Great Sandwiches.

Are traditional recipes, with their lists of ingredients and their conveniently numbered steps really the best way to communicate cooking knowledge? I’m not convinced. Not for all situations, at least. Sometimes I want to share not a rigid recipe but more a way of thinking about a dish. Ramen, really, is an idea, and so is minestrone, so are crunchy tacos. There’s not one right way to make them, but there are certain characteristics that most good preparations share.

In trying to think of a way to write down my approach to the Great Sandwich, I thought of the book A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et. al. This book tries to outline an approach to building buildings that is less tied up in formal architecture and more based around the processes by which humans have traditionally made their homes. What’s actually revolutionary about the book, though, is not its focus on vernacular architecture but its format: it tries to express its ideas in a ‘pattern language.’ The authors aim to capture the patterns that occur over and over in comfortable dwellings (like having a main entrance or giving its occupants a ‘room of one’s own’) and turn them into components of a language, sort of like words. The interconnections between patterns—like a ‘South Facing Outdoors’ which might include a ‘Garden Seat’ in the form of a ‘Sitting Wall’—form the language’s grammar. In the mind of someone familiar with the pattern language, different patterns can combine to express different buildings.

I could write a treatise on this book. I have read it many times, and it has helped me improve as a designer, a builder, and also as a thinker, I think. But maybe it’s better just to share a pattern language of my own conception.




2 Bread Slices + Greens + Cheese + Tomato + Mayo + Mustard

This is the most essential pattern of the Great Sandwich. In a pinch, you can do without the tomato or the mayo, though it’s not advised. Other ingredients allow you to work with what’s in season and exercise creativity: red onion, pepperoncinis, pickled jalapeños, sauerkraut, avocado, olives, meat (?!), sweet peppers, parsley, hot giardiniera, etc.


Improvise the order of ingredients

The chief creative act of the sandwich-maker is to choose the ingredients—and to choose the order in which the ingredients are laid down. The best sandwiches lay their delicious ingredients in an order that makes sense. However this order is not a fixed thing. Rather it is in the hands of the sandwich-maker to improvise the most elegant solution to the ingredients they have chosen.


Put the fats (mayo, cheese) near what’s bitter and sour (greens, onion, pickled things)

The marriage of fat and bitter foods is at the heart of much good cooking. This is why a good caeser salad is so good. It is why saag paneer tastes so nourishing. I think it also helps explain the unlikely deliciousness of polenta and broccoli sauce, the food of my childhood.

In the case of the Great Sandwich, it’s generally best to put the greens directly against the mayo-slathered bread, then to put the cheese atop this. On the other side of the cheese I generally put red onion and pepperoncini.


Slice everything just thick enough

A quick way to make a great sandwich fail is to so fill it with ingredients that nobody can bite the whole thing. Maybe this is a virtue in something like the club sandwich (why is their height considered a good thing??). In a Great Sandwich, excess thickness is always a sin. This is about eating, not about showing off.

For this reason, be careful not to slice the bread, tomatoes, or cheese too thick. Years of sandwich-making will yield a sure instinct for the correct width.


Salt the tomato slices

Good slicing tomatoes are a wonderful part of a sandwich. But they get even better if you lightly sprinkle them with salt. Did I read somewhere that this frees up their glutamates—the same scrumptious compound behind MSG? It indisputably increases their succulence.


Put slippery ingredients against the bread

Some ingredients—avocado, cherry tomatoes—have a tendency to squirt out of the sandwich. Therefore, place them as near to the stabilizing bread as possible.


Cut the sandwich in half

This is not optional. Sandwiches really do taste better when sliced in half. This is because much of what makes a Great Sandwich delicious is textural, and the texture of the bread crust is best encountered later in a bite. Cutting the sandwich in half means that you can start each bite with your tongue pressed against the soft interior of the sandwich. If you get some crust in your bite, your tongue will only encounter it while chewing, meaning that your saliva will have already begun moistening it. A sandwich that has not been cut in half will, during those first few bites, have a tendency to dry out your tongue, seriously diminishing your pleasure.

I’m sorry if you found this description of the process of chewing to be gross, but I believe that to become better cooks we have to really imagine how we eat.


Toasting is 100% optional

Toasting the bread can make a good sandwich better, but it won’t make a mediocre sandwich good. It is truly optional.


Serve with chips

So much of eating is cultural! I have always enjoyed the chips that sandwich joints often give you with your sub, but I never thought too much about it. Then one day my dad one day mentioned that if you eat a few chips between bites, you get to enjoy some crunch to counter the softness of the sandwich. This is true but also weird—many culinary traditions have no time for crisp foods. People from these cultures often find the sensation of crunching on something to be kind of unpleasant on the teeth. Textures, as much as flavors, are matters of taste and largely determined by culture.

I’m a good California boy, and you can take my corn chips from my cold dead hands. Though when it comes to Great Sandwiches, the ultimate accompaniment is a small hill of potato chips.

This week has been busier than most. It turns out I kind of have a new job. This is good—making a living as a writer requires hustle. Most non-rich writers I know have to supplement their writing income with something: teaching, editing, copywriting, technical writing, bookshop work, scientisting, pharmacisting, etc. ‘Developing a Good Side Hustle’ should be a course taught in every MFA in the country.

My new hustle is writing articles for the Antioch University website. It’s interesting work: it turns out that it’s fun to call up professors and students around a university, reporting on their projects and picking their brains about issues within their fields.

My favorite kind of article to write, so far, is the profile. I learn a student or alum’s story and then tell it as well as I can. The most fun part is when I get them on the phone and start asking questions. It turns out—who knew?—that most people are pretty interesting when they talk about their lives. Furthermore, they’re delighted to be asked.

People are so interesting, and as a culture we spend so much time writing (memos, emails, reviews, etc.), but we really don’t spend that much time writing thoughtfully about each other. Think about the ten most interesting people that you know. If you googled each of them, would you be able to find a profile of any of them? Or would you at best find a concise bio that they probably wrote themselves, which maybe lists what schools they went to but leaves out the fascinating parts? I suspect the latter.

I wish there were more people out there writing profiles. People are interesting! There should be a record of their lives! I for one don’t want to wait for the obituary.

Would it be too crazy for us to come together as a society and pool our resources to make this much more widespread? I think this would knit our society more closely together while having the side benefit of giving gainful employment to some struggling writers, thereby freeing up their parents’ basements and maybe casually subsidizing some great art along the way. But humans are probably just incapable of collective action like this, right?

I didn’t realize when I sent out last week’s installment just how many dear old friends would reach out. Your reasons were plenty: Just to say hi. To revel in our newly-revealed shared love of huevos rancheros. To report that you’d made my salsa recipe! To say that you were living in LA too. Or to share that you too have enjoyed ice in your beer. Jock even reports that ‘in France, biere panachee (beer with lemon juice added) is often served with ice.’ I tried this last night and it was ?.

To say this has all been a pleasure would be an understatement. It has been more like a revelation. Because I don’t have social media, the ways I stay in touch with friends and family are email, text, and phone calls. This means I’m in less regular touch with many of you than I might otherwise be. I know I sometimes get a little high and mighty about this—you know, ‘Wake up sheeple!’—but despite my love of email email I sometimes feel a little jealous of those of you who can use Facebook or Instagram or Twitter without losing yourselves in aphasic trances of self-loathing and obsession. It must be nice to remain in a sort of loose web of updates and photos, of likes and little exchanges of comments. When you move to a new city, I imagine you blast out a simple status: ‘Yo, LA, I’m here. Hit me up already!’

Oh well. I can’t get back on the apps, just like I can’t start smoking again. No matter how much I crave it.

And this newsletter is, I think, a sort of social media. It doesn’t have an algorithm or an app, in fact it lacks all of the compulsive calibration the big Silicon Valley apps have. It is a little, idiosyncratic letter from one kitchen table in California. And when it elicits a response, it’s relatively unmediated. We’re just emailing, or on the phone. Sooner or later, we’ll be in person. I’m looking forward to that.

Till then I’ll be in your magic inbox. I promise next week to try and practice greater concision.

17 May 2020

This writer’s diary is in fact directly inspired by a video game development diary, Robin Sloan’s ongoing Perils of the Overworld game diary/newsletter, which I heartily recommend you subscribe to and read. He is a novelist building a text-based video game. His emails are decidedly superior to mine because they also contain “sound snacks”—samples from the sound track a musician is developing for the game. He also describes experiments using AI to generate fantasy settings, theorizes about why video game text is so often annoying, and rhapsodizes about obscure typography. For a certain type of nerd—my type—this is all catnip. Give it a try.

Week 1: Salsa Ranchera

What follows is a sample of my Writer’s Diary, which I currently email out every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your inbox, subscribe here.

Hello! And Happy Mother’s Day!
Also, welcome back. It’s been a while since I’ve sent out this email diary. If you’ve enjoyed it in the past, I apologize for the long hiatus. And if you’ve not enjoyed it, I’m sorry to again bombard you with free content. (There’s an unsubscribe button somewhere down there.) The truth is that I’ve missed sending this out. I’m hungry to talk about myself, about what I’m doing and thinking. So I’m re-starting this list. Buckle your seatbelts. I’m going to send out more emails.

In its prior incarnation, this was a travelogue. I narrated, sometimes at great length, what was happening as I traveled in Tibet, China, and Thailand. But today the airplanes are flying three-quarters-empty, the border guards are bored, and pleasure travel is the exclusive province of sociopaths and the mega-rich (but I repeat myself).

The other night, Lisa and I spent half an hour watching a video someone took a few years back of a simple night walk around Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. We peeked in little bars that only seat five at a time. We admired elegant billboards and looked curiously at businesses with English-language names like Peg and BigBang and Bon’s Old Fashioned American Style Pub. Most of all, we jealously ogled pedestrians who were out on the town, faces uncovered, physically undistanced, residing in the normal world that is no more.

Has any time ever made us hungrier for connection? And for that matter, has any time ever made us hungrier? I miss street life, restaurants, jam-packed farmer’s markets, and big dinner parties. Those are things that nourish.

I am going to try to send a copy of this email diary out every Sunday. Like my travelogue, this version of my newsletter won’t last forever. I’m thinking of sending twelve or eighteen installments—if I’m having too much fun, I’ll choose the bigger number. They will be open diaries, letting you know a bit of what I’m doing and thinking, how I am touching the world—the sort of thing I might tell you about if you came over for brunch. And I will include a recipe. Not because I expect you to cook it. More like, it’s fun when you visit someone to watch them cook, and to hear them talk about what they’re making as they make it.

I’ll do my best to keep it brief. Though I’m bad at brevity. I’m sorry.

These are the huevos rancheros from Cafe One, a little diner on the north end of Fort Bragg. They are, to my mind, the perfect breakfast. You eat them with a fork and knife, and each bite can be perfect in its own way.

The essential equation here is eggs + salsa + beans + tortilla. The flavors fit together so nicely. Rich custardy yellow yolks contrast with tart salsa. Corn-forward tortillas plays off the softly round black beans. Sour cream, avocado, and egg yolk are all fats, but each brings something special: the cream is tart, the avocado is sweet and green, and the yolk is a rich, sinshiney liquid that flows and coats. All the components are fresh and good on their own, but as a dish they become even better. Especially if you drizzle some Tapatio over the top. And did I mention they come with breakfast potatoes and a tiny wedge of watermelon?

I have thought a lot about this dish—mostly about how much I want to eat it, but also about how I could make it on my own. Eventually, I realized that the main thing standing in my way was having a really good salsa ranchera. (The canned stuff is, for this purpose, just not up to snuff.) The need to find a good salsa ranchera became more urgent in January, when we moved to L.A.


This is the week that the jacaranda trees decided to reach maximum purple petal. It’s also the week that the carpenters building the luxury condo complex across the street decided to enclose it in a pale yellow sheathing product that every four feet proclaims itself to be “DensGlass.” I find the two colors—one organic, the other manufactured—to be unexpectedly lovely, together like this.

I’m a tremendous fan of John Thorne, the cookbook writer. His book Mouth Wide Open did that rare thing that Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat also did: it changed the way I cook. Both books gave me permission to deviate, often wildly, from written recipes. But while Nosrat’s book gave me a framework for understanding the elemental components of good cooking, Thorne helped me think about cookbooks in a new way. Before, I thought that you read cookbooks mostly to look for dishes to make. You might idly page through one, and if something caught your eye you could flag it with a sticky note. But that’s not the only way to read a cookbook. You can also read it more like a novel: enjoying the language, getting familiar with the peculiarities of the narrator, and letting the waking dream of a different world assemble itself in your mind. In the case of a cookbook, the world you visit is mostly a kitchen, and the eyes you see through are those of someone who loves cooking.

Now I mostly read cookbooks while laying in bed. I love it when their authors talk about different techniques, how they came to learn something, and what they were thinking when they formulated a dish. In this way I have spent time with the minds of patissiers, Chinese-American cooks, Persian-American cooks, bread bakers, and even that guy who started Blue Bottle Coffee. (He’s very intense about his coffee.) I cannot recommend pleasure reading good cookbooks enough.

But John Thorne also taught me that when you want to cook a specific dish, the opposite approach is best: take down every cookbook that you can think of that might have a recipe for that dish. Read all of the different approaches. Then come up with your own.

So, excited to make salsa ranchera, did just that. I took down Rick Bayless’s Mexican Everyday (with its bizarre emphasis on yoga, of all things), The El Paso Chile Company Cookbook, and one of my favorite books ever, Secrets of Salsa.

Secrets of Salsa
was first published
in 2001 by the Anderson Valley Adult School, and it collects the salsa recipes and stories of the women in their English as a Second Language classes. Everything in the book is presented bilingually, in facing translations. The book design is beautiful, the salsa recipes are excellent, and all of the proceeds benefit adult literacy in Anderson Valley. According to the seventh edition’s introduction, Secrets of Salsa has sold more than 27,000 copies. If you account that mine cost $14.95 new at Matson Mercantile in Elk, that must be a lot of money raised. Beyond its incredible value as a fundraising tool, it is a powerful proof of the work they are doing in those classes. I think of the pride of these women in seeing their ancestral knowledge and personal genius collected and valued in such a tangible way—it makes my heart sing.

So I compared Bertha Mendoza’s recipe for Salsa Ranchera to those from my other cookbooks. The El Paso Chile Company suggested fresh jalapeños where Bertha used pickled ones, and I thought that made sense—especially with what I had in the fridge. I also looked at a few recipes I found online. I liked the idea of adding some broth to both thin the salsa and make it richer.

Eventually, I turned the broiler on and made my own version. This salsa is rich with flavors, moderately tart, and a little spicy. It gets better over a few days in the fridge, and in my experience it can keep for up to two weeks. (As with all refrigerated foods you have to use and trust your senses.) Lisa and I have enjoyed it over huevos rancheros, in burritos, and on baked potatoes.

Jasper’s Salsa Ranchera

10-12 roma tomatoes
3-5 jalapeño peppers
1/4 of an onion
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1/4 cup strong vegetable broth
juice of 1 lime
1. Halve the tomatoes and peppers. Array them face down, round side up on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, along with the onion and unpeeled garlic. Roast for ten minutes in the broiler—until the tomato skins are crackly but not burnt.
2. After removing from the oven, pull the skins off the tomatos and jalapeños (if possible). Also peel the garlic.
3. Throw everything in a blender. Blend. Salt to taste.
Serve alone or as a topping. Store in the refrigerator. If you have more than you can reasonably eat within the next week or two, give some away or freeze it.

Just put some ice in your beer already.
I don’t get why people are so precious about this salubrious liquid. In Thailand, everybody does this. And why not? It makes your beer cold. Then it keeps your beer cold. And, best of all, it slowly dilutes it! Learn to love your cold, watery beer.

I’ll see you next week




You have found the archives of Lightplay, my email newsletter. If you like any of these, I encourage you to sign up to receive future issues in your inbox.


14 – Utopian Proposals
13 – Chronos, Nomads, Fruit
12 – the Lost Travelogue
11 – Rainbow
10 – American Trip
09 – The Strangest Summer
08 – Bread
07 – Change the Name!
06 – A Post-Protest Popsicle
05 – Recipe for a Protest Movement
04 – Beyond the Kitchen Window
03 – Sauerkraut
02 – the Great Sandwich
01 – Salsa Ranchera


2015 Travelogue: China, Tibet, Thailand

7 – The Amateur Mountaineers
6 – Two Tibetan Print Houses
4 – Wachang to Litang
3 – Muli Monastery to Wachang
2 – Kunming to Muli Monastery
1 – San Francisco to Hong Kong

Travelogue 7 – The Amateur Mountaineers

What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on December 12, 2015.



Dear Travelogue Readers —


It’s been a couple of weeks since my last update, and much has happened, though it also feels like I’ve been standing still. I made it to Thailand, spent a week laid low by the flu, and for the time being I’m living in Chiang Mai, a northern city filled with other foreigners and ex-pats. Life here is slow and easy, which makes for a boring travelogue. I’m writing a lot, though, and I still have a few stories worth telling from China.

The following trip took place just over three weeks ago, but it was only a few days back that I realized I had something to say about it. Find my efforts below — I hope you enjoy them.

I’d like to thank Hannibal for taking several of the photographs in this installment, and for offering that I could use them. I’ve credited him at the bottom and provided instructions for how to access higher-resolution versions. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.


Jasper Henderson
12 December 2015
Chiang Mai, Thailand



We’ve been walking for more than eleven hours, and now we’re halfway up the last moraine before the pass. The sun is setting on the other side of the mountains. Its rays streak overhead to paint the hilltops we’ve already rounded red-gray and burnt yellow, but no heat reflects back to our crease. Instead we’re trying to keep our footing on pebbles embedded in ice. We pause for a long time, me twenty feet further up the slope, and we talk. Hannibal tells me about a party he threw in the co-op his senior year of college, during Boston’s worst winter in fifty years, when the snow was piled five feet deep between the sidewalks and the street. But in the Dudley Co-op the radiators were going full blast, and there was fresh bread, and he went out and bought an icecream cake. It sounds like a different planet.

He finds some internal reserve of energy and starts moving up again. I also push up, finding each footing in the blue glow of snow and ice and stepping into it, willing my feet not to slip and drop me. There’s maybe one hundred feet to the pass. Hannibal catches up to me and surges ahead and out of sight. I think I hear him whooping and screaming, but I don’t feel like going any further, so I stop and stand there for a while, thirsty and tired. A minute later Hannibal reappears and climbs down towards me a little ways. He’s encouraging me to keep going and make it to the top. I push, each step taking real thought and energy. Eventually the slope flattens a little bit, and there’s just a snowfield to cross. In order to make a solid footing you have to stomp your foot into the snow. Even so it feels like you might slip at any moment.

Somehow I make it to the top, and the wind is screaming. Hannibal says into my ear a Tibetan phrase that he thinks I should shout to celebrate our triumph, and I rather pathetically yell it into the gale. Then I forget the words. It takes me a long time to get my windbreaker on. We take a few pictures, look at the sunset. After a few minutes we start climbing down as fast as we can.


Hannibal and I first walked together four-and-a-half years ago, after I breezily invited myself along on a trip he was taking in northwest China. Somehow in that summer we became friends, and we also learned that we get along mysteriously well on the trail. Walking together is a curious sort of companionship — you sleep right next to each other, take every meal together, and together you confront the road. Sometimes maybe one person walks a hundred feet ahead for an hour, but for the most part you’re right next to each other, all the time. It’s an intense companionship, even at times a shared solitude, an isolated little world of two. What makes the whole endeavor possible is that you are united around a common purpose: the journey.

A good comparison, I think, is to Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick. At the beginning they share a bed but little else. Ishmael is terrified of the tattooed savage with his razor-sharp harpoon and strange little totem. Soon they warm to each other and develop a bond of shared purpose, spending the rest of the novel looking out for each other. It’s a friendship built on shared toil not taken too seriously. Also, the backdrop of the novel: the ocean, the great, blank sea. Walking has some of this sense of adriftness, of slow movement through the void.

Life, it increasingly seems to me, is a long scrabble for meaning and purpose — if you’re lucky, maybe happiness — in an essentially meaningless medium. Walking just makes this more literal. Your possessions are what you can carry on your back, and you rely on them to survive. You move between zones of relative comfort, hotels and living rooms and monastery refectories, and places of greater discomfort, drainage ditch bivouacs and windblasted peaks and long, straight, dust-choked roads. As days pass you sometimes have the illusion of progress, but this is a mirage, an invention. The day you set out you’re just a human with a satchel on a road, and the day you return you’re still a human with a satchel on a road.

The progress invention is part of what makes us human. We tell stories about our trips, call them adventures, imagine that there was a narrative and sometimes even a plot. We are so used to stories that we often set out on a trip with just such a purpose in mind. In the ugly phrase in vogue today, we set out to “make some memories.” You can see it in IMAX clarity with a book like Eat, Pray, Love, its itinerary (Italy, India, Bali) and narrative (hedonism heals in the sensual Orient) baked into the title and even into the book proposal, which sold for a $200,000 advance before Elizabeth Gilbert took the first step of her trip. We tell ourselves stories not in order to live, as Joan Didion would have it, but because we’re ravenous for meaning and essential to our very nature is the constant groping for it.

Back on the topic of companionship while walking, it strikes me that the more felicitous comparison might be to Waiting for Godot. Two men stand in a barren landscape, talking. Both go back and forth on the very possibility that something meaningful could happen. One (Vladimir/Hannibal) has a small bladder and is often going off to pee. The other (Estragon/Jasper) spends a lot of time struggling with his shoes. They don’t have enough food, but there’s nothing they can do about it. The situation seems helpless — Godot will never arrive, the men will never find meaning or love again — but there is consolation, though they often can’t see it, in that they have each other’s company. I guess in some respect this is a love letter to Hannibal.


We slip out of Xining like men running away from their pasts. The bus drops us in a dusty hot Muslim town halfway along the new highway to Rebgong. Along the Yellow River, actually a reservoir in this stretch, butchers in dirty canvas tents saw merrily away on rib-splayed cows amid the buzz of flies and small children. We take a car up to a small monastery where a month before Hannibal made friends with the cook. Most of the monks are in the assembly hall chanting a long text and periodically breaking into a clangor of drum banging, horn honking, and cymbal clattering. It’s the most musically talented monastery I’ve yet had the privilege of visiting.

With a few free hours before sundown we walk to the neighboring monastery, which Hannibal had found strange and off-putting, albeit with great views, the last time he visited. We find the whole place seemingly abandoned in the middle of an ambitious construction project. Carved wooden screens lean in great stacks under the eaves. Piles of garbage taller than I am release scraps of plastic and newspaper that blow across large cobbled courtyards in the evening breeze. The prayer halls are all locked, and the place has the feel of one of those half-abandoned Soviet resorts you sometimes stumble into in Russia. There was once great ambition and now there is great emptiness.

In the entrance alcove of one of the locked prayer halls we find a thangka of Wrathful Shambhala. The enemies of Buddhism are being ridden down by a horde of the righteous. If you examine the bad guys’ corner of the painting you find them suffering the depredations of undead buggery and a rain of sodatic/sotadic daggers. (The next day Hannibal distracts me from the drudgery of our hike with a comic lecture on these two possible adjectival derivations, both meaning “of or relating to buggery.” [Buggery itself coming simply from “Bulgarian” and referring to a 16th-century imaginative conception of Eastern Orthodox sexual practices.] Sotadic is an adjective first formed by Richard Burton from the name of the lewd Greek poet Sotades, in order to describe a climatic zone [kind of arbitrarily following the Tropic of Cancer] that he found to be particularly filled with and accepting of homosexuality and pederasty. Sodatic is an adjective invented by Hannibal from the name of the Biblical city of Sodom, which was famously blasted by Old Testament God because of its lascivious and unrepentant libertinism. The point being that both words mean the same thing and are anagrams but have pleasingly disparate derivations.) Having now seen this fate worse than our own we walk back to our livelier and less trash-strewn monastery to eat dinner, listen to a half-hour of bombastic horn-blasting, and fall into an early sleep.



We wake before our alarms and drink as much water as we can stomach. For some reason we’ve only brought a single one-liter Nalgene, which we’re supplementing with a 400ml Tropicana tangerine juice bottle. We can carry just under a liter-and-a-half of water, which is not exactly the Sierra Club recommended water provisioning for a multiday hike through frozen alpine conditions, but whatever, we’re each carrying a bottle of Coke too, which yeah, soda pop is dehydrating. We both know it’s bad planning, so we’re pregaming the hike with some water chugging. Eventually we put on our shoes, leave the dark monastery, and visit the nice new privy they’ve built on the edge of the ravine.

Sometime later we start walking. The stars are spread luxuriantly on this cloudless, moonless early morning. We cross little frozen creeks that glimmer mysteriously in the starlight as chill winds whip down their streambeds. Eventually we notice that the monastery behind us has become a constellation of distant, lighted windows. We round the off-putting, under construction monastery, which in the dawn half-light is mysteriously overrun by donkeys. After a while the road turns west, towards the mountain range we’re planning to cross. We breakfast on stale bread and strawberry flavored Oreos.

The sunrise is a crown of rose and electric orange and aquatic blue-greens smoldering over distant ridgelines. Nearby hillsides are blanketed in hearthsmoke and the canyons echo with cockcall. We walk. Sometime in late morning we run into a Tibetan road crew carrying big bags of rice and other foodstuffs and shovels to a remote camp. They’re cheery in spite of their bulky loads, which make my strappy, endlessly adjustable backpack seem an outrageous luxury. A few minutes later we’re visited an old yakherd, who squats next to us as we snack and gives Hannibal complex pathfinding advice. Hannibal encourages me to offer him a cigarette, but when I hold one out he explains proudly that he quit last year. I smoke alone, laid out on the knolly, stubby grass, angling my body to absorb maximum sunlight.

Later the path disappears entirely and we cross a hundred yards of shin-deep, crusty snow. At the other side there’s a saddle with wind gusting over it. Hannibal quickly lies down, pulls his bulky big jacket over his head, and falls asleep. I wander around, finding the remains of a summer herding camp: dugout earthen hearths, a scattering of dried yak chips, a worn-out canvas jacket, and busted pair of shoes. I give it a minute and then go back and wake Hannibal from what looks like a blissful nap. There’s still a lot of ground between us and the pass.

We cross the new road they’re putting in. We’ve been talking for hours about the ancient pleasure of following a footpath, remembering favorite paths, enjoying steep hillsides unspoiled by roadcut. We cut away from the road and find the footpath again, though now it goes up rather precipitously, and we start feeling the altitude. Altitude sickness in its milder forms is largely mental, but that doesn’t make its effects any less real. We take fifty steps and then stop for a minute and catch our breath. Then we take another fifty steps and repeat. Walking becomes labor, and the regular interruption makes it drudgerous work. The dun hills are freckled with patches of low brown scrub. As we cross slopes the temperature fluctuates wildly, still and sweaty-hot in the middle of a bowl but wind-whipped and chill on the spines of ridge. We’ve run out of water.

Finally we can see the pass and begin making our final approach. Here the path is little more than a yak track. It contours around lobes of hill, sometimes going sharply up and other times descending as much as a hundred feet. The parts going down we take almost at a run, worried as we are now about the lateness of the day and our high elevation. We pick our way over rockslides and hoof-pitted slopes made mud-slick by the late afternoon sunlight, but there’s nowhere even a trickle of water with which to refill our bottles. The east-facing slopes are meanwhile covered in thin snow, which is made treacherous by our exhaustion. Often the snow is coated in a thin crust of ice that has re-frozen in the afternoon shade. At one point I am feeling particularly nervous, looking down hundreds of feet of slick snow, when Hannibal falls with a yell. I worry that he twisted an ankle, but he pops up quickly, cursing. I catch up with him and he shows me where he bent the hiking pole he’s using: it caught in a crevice right as he slipped. We bend it straighter, and I pound the damaged section into its sleeve. We continue even slower.

As we approach the pass it seems like each round of hillside should be the last, but once we’ve picked our way around or over it another one is revealed. Our boots get covered in snow which then melts. We lose the path each time it passes into shadow and ice. We invent our way for a while and then find the path again, a hundred feet from where we’ve ended up. It sounds miserable, and by the end it was miserable. When we finally start pushing up the final moraine to the pass we look down and see the new, broad road terminating just a few hundred feet below. Halfway to the top, perched on pebbles and ice, Hannibal tells me about a glorious party in a warm co-op in Boston. We summit the pass before sundown, and then begin our parched, twilit descent.



There’s a tendency in our culture, and maybe in our DNA, to glorify suffering. We have the cliché of the tortured artist, alone in her garret, sculpting from her sorrow a masterpiece. We see Achilles raging over Patroclus’s body, wracked with mourning and anger, a righteous and beautiful fury. Young Werther kills himself for love, and a dozen copycats follow his example and make the literary literal. This is part of the storytelling virus: it takes something elemental but essentially meaningless like suffering — the meaning of suffering is that one is suffering — tautology as truth — and grants it symbolic power, romanticizes it, ties it to other events divided by time from the suffering itself. Eventually we have a story in which suffering is a foil to future glory or redemption. And maybe after hearing the story we think that we understand something deeper about suffering itself.

I don’t mean to insult storytelling here. I’m an aspiring novelist, a teacher of poetry, and most certainly the narrative sections of this very essay have some semblance of plot and story to them. Only that lately a great skepticism of pat conclusions and hackneyed narratives has come over me. I don’t after all believe that suffering usually makes one a stronger, wiser person or even a better artist. It seems equally false to assume that a journey or adventure will lead to personal growth or some kind of conclusion.

I guess I’m not even really talking about the suffering of walking across a mountain range without enough water. I’m talking about this trip I’m in the middle of: five-and-a-half months spent writing in Asia. I not only don’t think that it should be burdened with meaning in the sense I’ve been talking about, I also emphatically don’t want it to be, which has the sound of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I embarked from San Francisco with a broken heart, as the woman I’d been loving and living with for almost four years and I broke up, went our different ways. This trip was selfish, in the strict sense that it was intended to help me focus on my writing and find the path I want to follow in the years to come, but it was also in some ways self-defeating, self-injurious. I had been frustrated with my writing, as the work of making money and keeping a home and having a social life left precious little time for sitting quietly in a room with a computer. I realized that if I didn’t start prioritizing writing right now, when my life was comparatively empty, it would never happen. But that life was also comfortable and filled with delight and, and, love. Art requires action; I had the opportunity to act; in so acting I caused my heart to break. This doesn’t mean that it was the right decision (if such a thing can be said to exist), nor does it mean I am on the path of growth or self-discovery or even artistic brilliance. Events occur, we make decisions, and sometimes we suffer.

It’s already a trope that the brokenhearted don’t want their hearts to mend. The Magnetic Fields’s “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” is a beautiful and funny parody of the feeling. But there’s something true I think in this desire to remain broken. My dad once told me that rather than mend a broken heart, you should embrace its shatteredness, should sledge it again, break it into a thousand, a thousand thousand pieces and then let each shard and speck glint and shine like the stars in the sky. Maybe it’s less hopeful, but then it also seems more possible. I think this is what I’m aiming for in my travels and my suffering rather than some narrative of recovery and healing. It’s a broken world, friends, but can’t we love it as it is, not trying to make it something else, not glorifying but accepting it?



We scuttle down off the windy pass. As we drop one hundred, two hundred feet I start to prattle about all sorts of strange things, but my lips are numb so I have to keep repeating myself. I’m thrilling over the word debouch. We pick our way down a heavily eroded hillside — three-foot tall grass-topped hummocks subdivided into an archipelago by steep ditches filled with loose gravel. I tell Hannibal that once we get down to the saddle at the bottom I’m going to smoke a cigarette. We make it to the saddle but I hallucinate that a pile of rocks is a sleeping person or animal and refuse to approach it till Hannibal inspects it. “Just some rocks, Jasper.” Then I throw my bag down and take awhile finding my cigarettes. Finally I get one lit and try to enjoy it, but I’m too dehydrated and exhausted. I look over at Hannibal and notice that he’s fuming as the last glow of twilight fades away and we haven’t found water yet. I stub my cigarette out even though I’ve only taken a few drags and rise wobbly to my feet. I’ve got my headlamp on but its batteries are drained and it lets out a humorous, thin squiggle of light. We immediately walk down the wrong side of a drainage and have to backtrack.

Soon we reach a lumpy field and Hannibal says, “I’m going to get water from the stream down there. Can you pitch the tent?” I agree but can’t for the life of me figure out where he thinks there’s flat ground. He gestures at a lump and says, “Only our backs need to be flat, right?” I pitch the tent somewhere else that proves even lumpier, and he fetches water. When he returns having actually found water we’re both too tired to celebrate. Then I insist on using my iodine tablets to purify the water, which requires waiting for half an hour. Hannibal laughs at the tablets — he’s in a better mood after drinking his fill down at the stream — and then tells me that there’s probably Bubonic Plague in the water. We lie in our sleeping bags keeping the water from freezing with our body heat. When the water’s finally ready we drink it and for dinner eat disgusting two-day-old stuffed bread. We sleep.

The next morning we’re in high spirits as we walk across a mesa-like plateau with endless vistas of distant, shimmering peaks. Then we spend a few hours walking along a streambed hemmed by the high cliffs of the plateau. We run out of water again — this time it’s my fault. Eventually we end up on an endless, straight road across scrubland. It’s late afternoon by the time we reach the main road. We catch a bus to the town of Guide and take a room at its fanciest hotel, the only one that accepts foreigners. The room is stupidly opulent in all the ways that don’t matter (the bathroom has automatic lights that click off before you can finish pooping) and fairly uncomfortable in the ways that do matter (the front door is super-heavy and wants to shut on your fingers; the heat is turned up unbearably high). We get hotpot and can’t finish it. Back in the room we watch a crappy Chinese rip of the movie Kickass and go to bed.

We wake early and walk through the old city of Guide: tall walls looming over a freshly bulldozed wasteland. The wrecking crew didn’t even bother to clean up the bricks from the old courtyard houses and winding alleys they knocked down. Instead they’ve rebuilt in a vaguely historical fashion a single shopping street, now featuring angle parking. It’s impossible to write about this stuff without being cutely sarcastic and depressed. At the north end there still stands a temple complex complete with a temple tower. Hannibal is an expert in the history and meaning of temple towers, so it’s fascinating to finally visit one with him. It’s a glorious old building, quite tall, and it reminds me of a lighthouse. The whole complex, even the Garden of Literature, is empty, probably due to the 80-kuai entrance fee, about $12 USD. I ask Hannibal if there’s some kind of special rate for locals, and he says no, anyone who wanted to pray here daily would have to pay the entrance fee every single time.

We take a bus back to Xining, and the next day I fly to Bangkok.



I’d like to credit and thank Hannibal Taubes for taking the first two pictures and the sixth, in which I gaze scenically out at the sunset after crossing the pass. If you’d like to enjoy these and the other photos at full resolution simply click on them and then follow the link above the picture that reads something like, “4567×1234.”

Two Tibetan Print Houses

What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on November 16, 2015.


My last morning the monk and I struggle to communicate. I’ve told him that I’m going to hitchhike to Derge, a town famous for its traditional printing presses. He leans forward again and pretends to spread ink on a woodblock, mimes putting paper down, and then rocks forward again as if he was running a roller the length of the paper so that it will pick up the ink. “Yes,” I say, “I’m going to Derge.”

“No,” he says shaking his head, and he points at the floor. He pantomimes printing again. In this monastery? That doesn’t make sense. Only three monks live here. That’s not enough to run a printing press. This room, the bedroom of the monk I’m talking with, has two rug-covered sleeping platforms, a warm coal stove, a bare compact-fluorescent bulb dangling from the ceiling, and ornately painted paneling on all sides. This monastery’s central function is apparently to host travelers. The income from guests seems to be enough to support the monks, to buy butter lamps, and even to underwrite the purchase of a late-model red motorcycle that they keep in a disused storeroom. The monks lead a simple life here, cooking noodles for guests, shooing yaks out of the courtyard, going to the neighboring monastery for morning prayers. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a press here.

The monk stands up and gestures for me to follow him. I shove the remainder of my tsampa into my mouth, pray for saliva, and go through the pocket door and out towards the monastery’s only temple. It’s the tallest building in the walled complex, and it’s been locked the three days I’ve stayed here. He takes down the key from its secret niche and unlocks a padlock that chains the door to the flagstones. I follow him inside.


It’s dark, and the still air is cold but dry and musty. The fluorescent tubes flicker to light, strobing through greenish, unreal hues till they settle into a thin light. Wood rafters high overhead support the mud roof, and at the back of the chamber stand five tall Buddhas. The monk walks me over to the sidewall of the room. It is lined with tall shelves filled with thousands of paddle-shaped woodblocks. I take out a heavy block and look at the mirrored Tibetan characters rising from both sides of the plank. The chiselwork is exquisite: religious words in careful script, meant to be iterated a thousand, a thousand thousand times, to be read by students and chanted beneath great thangkas, meant to be read. Now they sit here, like relics, in a half-forgotten monastery.

We walk to the other end of the hall, where there are just as many shelves and blocks. One section is filled with broken and rotten shards of destroyed woodblock. They haven’t been thrown out but instead are preserved here, holy even in their fallen state. They remind me of genizot in Synagogues, where damaged or worn-out holy texts and even documents or letters containing invocations of God are stored before they can receive a proper burial. The Jewish God in written form is considered to be not only holy but also living and due all the respect accorded the human body. The most famous genizah, the Cairo Genizah, contained more than 300,000 Jewish documents and fragments when it was discovered, and these riches have allowed countless scholarly discoveries across many fields and given us a clear image of Jewish medieval life in the Islamic world. (My teacher James Russell once wrote a fascinating paper about a traveler’s multi-lingual word list found in the Genizah, and now I can report that if I were to make a traveler’s dictionary some of my most important phrases would be, “I don’t eat meat” and “Please take me to x.”) So these preserved shards of old Tibetan woodblocks, kept in the same temple as the entire ones, are not only aesthetically beautiful but evidence of a culture that respects its gods and its history. I ask the monk if I can take pictures with my cell phone, and he agrees, but the light is weak so they don’t come out very well.


We walk back out into the morning glare and talk about the history of this monastery. Now, I don’t speak any Tibetan and only a handful of words in Chinese. Likewise the monk speaks very little Chinese and no English. So we communicate by sign language and drawing numerals on our palms. It’s possible, even likely, that I’ve got some of this wrong.

In the early 1950’s, this monastery supported 300 monks. From history I remember that at this time_ the Chinese Communist Party had finally won the Chinese Civil War, forcing the Kuomintang to retreat to Taiwan. The Communists were eager to solidify their control of Chinese territory, and they suddenly had a surplus of idle troops. So they began sending soldiers into Kham. The region of Kham stretches through swaths of present-day Sichuan Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region, as well as smaller parts of Gansu, Qinghai, and Yunnan Provinces. The soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army encountered local resistance in Kham — I won’t go into it here. They also began disbanding monasteries, which were found to contribute nothing to the well-being of the proletariat while leeching valuable resources for the worship of gods that didn’t exist. In 1954 this monastery was destroyed, razed to the ground.

The monks were not, however, caught entirely unaware. They managed, with the help of local farmers and nomads, to smuggle from the monastery thousands of its precious woodblocks, along with certain important relics. They buried them all in secret and then commenced waiting for that day when the woodblocks could once again have pride of place in a temple. The intervening years were dark. In 1964, Chairman Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution, remaking — or unmaking — Tibet alongside the whole of China. When it ended in 1976, the immense majority of Tibet’s many thousands of monasteries had been destroyed, even the most remote ones. After it ended people started the slow work of picking up the pieces and rebuilding what they could. At this monastery, in 1983, people gathered to raise up new walls for a more modest monastery where the old one had stood. The next year they dug the woodblocks up from their hiding place and ceremonially returned them to the monastery’s temple. I am led to believe that it was an occasion of great joy and celebration for the entire community.T5-SavedWoodblockLibrary

This monastery is only a shade of what it must have been. Where once there were three hundred monks, now there are three. Where once it had been a large complex complete with its own printing press, now it is an empty courtyard with tall grass surrounded by five dormitory buildings and a temple. At full capacity it could maybe sleep eighty. And now the woodblocks sit, unused, rarely seen, waiting for a day when once again two men will sit across from each other, spreading ink, rolling paper, and producing copies of scripture for others to read.

Finally the monk and I just stand there in silence under the slanting morning light, imagining what must have been, glad that something of the past still remains. We both smile at each other. His smile is kind and sad. We shake hands. I go to my room to finish packing my bags and then walk across fields strewn with garbage, a light morning mist evaporating off of them, till I reach the main road.


I start hitching to Derge, though I’m worried what I will find there. A few nights back a skinny, young, frenetic Chinese businessman came to the monastery. He wore mala beads around his neck and enthusiastically pushed cigarettes on everyone. I was the only one who accepted them. He explained to us that as a businessman — in this case a developer of hotels in Tibetan Sichuan — it was important to have a religion. After telling us about his service in the Chinese Special Forces and a trip to Ireland to engage in joint training with U.S. soldiers, he learned that I was going to Derge. “No, don’t go there,” he told me. “It is like a war zone. Go to a different place. Not Dege. It is not safe.”

I make it to Manigango, a crossroads town between Ganzi, Derge, and Shiqu. An older Tibetan nomad woman comes up to me in the pullout where I’m trying to hitch. She speaks only Tibetan, and every time I say “Derge” she shakes her head emphatically and indicates that I should follow her the other direction. She’s wearing pink Converse sneakers, an elaborately embroidered heavy robe with one arm out of its sleeve, and the most fantastic hat I’ve ever seen, a riot of colors and tassels and golden dragons. I reckon she’s in her forties. Her face is weathered and creased but still perfectly proportioned and beautiful. Eventually she impresses two schoolchildren to tell me in Chinese not to go to Derge. We all stand on the side of the road for fifteen minutes until they lose interest and wander away.


A Chinese construction crew eventually picks me up and we drive fast up a broad, smooth road into the mountains. By the lake called Yilhun Lhatso by the Tibetans and Xinluhai Lake by the Chinese we stop to take selfies. We drive onward, packed close together in the cab of a pickup truck. At some point we suddenly divert from the wide paved road onto a narrow dirt track. The track takes us up over the mountains where the snow is already thick and then back down, where the fancy road recommences. Soon a miles-long tunnel will connect the two roads and the scenic pass will be obsolete. Once that happens it won’t be any trouble at all to get to Derge.


The nice construction workers drop me off on the side of the road and tell me the town is only a few kilometers away. I walk past great gravel yards, a monstrous concrete batch plant with angry dogs, then through the outskirts of Derge, past auto shops and half-built highrises and storerooms filled with dry goods or lightbulbs or melons or bolts of fabric. The press of town closes around me. Derge is built in what we could call either a shallow canyon or a very steep valley. The buildings elbow each other at odd angles. The streets bend and narrow down. Police drive by with sirens blaring. A crew of stonelayers is in the middle of re-cobbling the sidewalks today. Chinese and Tibetans throng the center of town. Everyone stares at the foreigner. I see a blue-and-white sign that declares, “Foreigner-Approved Hotels: Hotel Shambala, Hotel Himalaya.” Both are right next to the sign and look prohibitively expensive.

Eventually I find an empty restaurant and get lunch: vegetables that I select from a refrigerator and give to the lady to boil in a spicy broth. Two young girls are loudly playing with a doll by the door. I haven’t eaten since tsampa at dawn. By now it’s four in the afternoon, and I’m ravenous when the food arrives. After eating I read in the Lonely Planet guide that there’s a tiny hotel with rooms for fifty kuai that accepts foreigners. The proprietress doesn’t recognize the street name, but she calls someone on her cell phone and eventually points me in the right direction. On my way out the door she comes up to me with a ten-kuai note and asks me if I might trade an American dollar for it. I’m in a bad mood though, so I say I don’t have any American kuai. On the street the hundred-and-six dollars in my breast pocket immediately seem evil, tainted by my lie.

The hotel turns out to be right on the main drag — I’d passed it coming into town. They immediately give me a room with two twin beds in it, and I spend half an hour with a twelve-year-old girl trying to input my passport details into a foreigner registration program that was built with Windows 95. I go back to my room and smoke cigarettes and read Joyce’s Dubliners in dim, reflected light.

When I go out for dinner I first head back to the shop where I got lunch and hand the lady my last one-dollar bill. Derge isn’t a warzone. It’s loud and filled with police, but people smile at you on the street. I find delicious fresh noodles and a half-liter of warm lager, and I write in my journal.


In the Derge Printing Press (parkhang in Tibetan) the afternoon sun spills through a lightwell and onto a balcony where an old layman and a young monk furiously print a text. They sit across from each other, each straddling the wood paddle that’s meticulously engraved with mirrored Tibetan characters. The old man’s seat is a few inches higher, and the woodblock slopes down to where the young monk sits. Both sit on haphazard cushions and rock back and forth in meditative exertion.

It goes like this. They have just finished printing ten copies front and back off of one woodblock. The monk sets the used woodblock on the stack of other used ones. The old man’s left hand grabs the handle of the next woodblock in the series and sets it between them. With his right hand he dips a cloth sponge into a basin of ink and wets down the fresh woodblock. The monk with his left hand grabs a sheet of paper from a large stack and both men deftly smooth and straighten it onto the block. The monk takes his roller in both hands and firmly rolls it up and down the paper. Then he sets the roller aside and takes the printed sheet and lays it across his left thigh. The layman carefully applies another coat of ink to the block. The monk grabs another sheet of paper and they repeat the process.

After ten sheets have been printed they flip the block over and begin printing the reverses of each sheet. Now when the monk finishes rolling out a sheet they both lift the completed page up to a drying rack. Then the monk snatches another sheet from his thigh and they register it to the block. After they have completed the ten pages they set the used woodblock aside and take up the next one. The process of printing ten copies front and back can’t take more than two minutes of silent, sweating work. Occasionally one tells a joke and they laugh. Another man pours them fresh butter tea from a big kettle and eventually takes the place of the monk. Your devoted correspondent watches them, entranced, for at least half an hour.

When I finally tear myself from the spectacle, I say thank you in Tibetan, guadrenche. They stop their work and call me back. Don’t I want to take some pictures? I do, actually, but I had become so reverent of their labors that I was too embarrassed to ask. I thank them again and take a video.

I spend most of the afternoon wandering the printing house. It looks and is laid out just like a Tibetan monastery. But aside from a prayer hall on the first floor the entire space is given over to the printing operation. Much of the building is taken up by a library of over 210,000 woodblocks. According to my guidebook, more than seventy percent of Tibet’s religious library is contained within the building, ready to be printed and posted anywhere in the world. I find it incredible: a library to generate libraries.


In one of the wings there is a mandala-printing studio. These are made printed off woodblocks that measure up to about three feet by two feet. The men there work each on their own project, carefully spreading the ink, laying the paper down, and then pressing on the paper with what looks like a big loose ball of yak hair. I wander through this room, stooped from the low ceiling, admiring the works drying on racks. Meanwhile the men take a break to watch a music video on one of their iPhones.

I wander further through the press. One man is sorting through giant piles of printed papers, assembling each set in the right order. Another is setting out freshly printed editions to dry on banisters along the lightwell. A few older men wander the premises with brooms and stick-mounted dustpans, stirring up the motes that catch the beams of sunlight. A Chinese family rushes through the place, urgently trying to see all of the sights of Derge in a single afternoon. In a light-drenched little room facing the main courtyard a portly Tibetan in nomad’s robes sorts through a great pile of what I assume are order forms and shipping receipts. He’s halfway through filling a massive leger with cramped Tibetan script.

There’s a steep stairway leading to the roof of the press. From up there I take a lot of pictures of picturesque Derge, a sweet little town nestled between great peaks, swiftly undergoing a transformation into a small Chinese city complete with bland high rises and an army barracks.


As I leave the printing complex I say some prayers for its wellbeing and continued existence. Then I snap some shots of the rows of woodblocks sitting ready on their shelves, even though there are signs everywhere saying not to.


I walk up above the old Tibetan quarter and sit in a field among yak pies and old soda cans to think about this place I have just been. It was not only incredibly beautiful, but it gave me hope as a book-lover. If this tradition can survive even in today’s China, then literature and stories and libraries and books can survive any blow. I think about my favorite libraries: Fort Bragg High School Library, where I first read “A Perfect Day For Bananafish”; Widener Library at Harvard, where Virginia used to work keeping the books properly shelved and ordered so students and scholars could find them; the National Public Library in Petersburg which card catalogs are not yet entirely digitized; my professor James’s apartment, crammed full of Armenica and Iranica and Russian vols. and even a first edition of Fahrenheit 451inscribed to his grandfather. I think of that book, of when Montag learns that there are people who have memorized books in order to save them from the bookburning “firemen,” and that these people have vowed to pass great literature down orally until that time when the world is ready again for books. Is there any more hopeful image for our day and age?

Fewer than seven percent of Americans have read a poem in the last year. We are too busy with our Youtube videos and Buzzfeed listicles and video games and mind-numbing jobs to sit down and read a poem. Maybe we’ve also fallen out of the habit. Forty-seven percent of Americans watched the Super Bowl this year: a five-hour event where adult men concuss each other for sport. Now we know that playing professional football often leads to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a disease in which brain tissue degenerates resulting in a condition quite like dementia. Sometimes it can seem that our culture as a whole suffers from CTE, filled as it is with all the symptoms: memory loss, aggression, confusion, and depression. It can be a hard time to be alive.

The Word is not dead, though. It will never die, not so long as those of us who care about it keep reading, keep writing, keep telling stories. The Derge Print House, cheerily turning out copies of ancient sutras and commentaries, is evidence of this. If hard times come we’ll bury the woodblocks again, and we’ll remember where they’re buried. We’ll look forward to that day when we bring them back into the temple, alive, verbose, triumphant.



Travelogue Excerpt – Wachang to Litang

What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on October 27, 2015.


Day 7: Wachang – ???

I have a terrible nightmare of skidding off the edge of a cliff. I am on a motorcycle with big panniers and a wide console for a stereo and all the other stuff certain bikers want for their rides. It seems clunky and overbuilt, unstable. I’m coming down one of these narrow Tibetan roads carved into the side of a mountain. The weather is overcast and stormy-dark, but it feels dry and dusty. As I come to the corner, the bike won’t turn. It won’t turn — it is racing towards the void. I throw the bike into a skid and put everything I have into staying on the clifftop, lean into the ground as hard as I can to increase friction. I am still skidding, as if time slowed down, towards the edge, towards the abyss.

I slowly wake up to find I am in fact in a tent in Wachang, standing on my knees, trying to tip the tent over onto its side. I crawl back into my warm sleeping bag and wait for the alarm to go off. Soon enough it does, and I get up and break down camp. By 7:02 AM I am standing where the cars, if they ever were going to, would come pick me up. At 8:30 the bus to Muli pulls out, and I try to get the driver to give me a ride to the crossroads below Muli Monastery, but I can’t explain it. He drives off without me. I ask someone standing in the street if I can use his cell phone to call Hannibal, but he takes a cigarette from me and walks away. I wait another hour, then two. At 10:30 I start walking on the road that leads down into the gorge. I don’t know what I’m going to do.


At the first stupa I pass I leave behind the book James gave me, that I read yesterday. I put out the prayer that somebody will take it and give it to a kid studying English. Maybe it will be read again. But I don’t feel it’s possible for me to carry it one more step. Without it, my bag feels immediately lighter, better. Maybe I can do this after all.

It takes me about two hours to climb down to the crossroads, cutting across people’s front pastures and frightening their piglets, choking on dust from Chinese SUVs barreling up to the monastery, and gauging the weight on my shoulders and hips. It feels okay. At the crossroads I head for what looks like a little restaurant, but a shopkeeper calls me off. There’s no restaurant — just a big gas station and a few disorganized five-and-dimes. I sit in the shopkeeper’s store, and he hands me two pieces of Wrigley’s Peppermint Gum. I ask him if there’s a bus to Dongla and he says no. I ask him if there’s a bus that goes in that direction, and he says no. I even ask him if he has cigarettes and he says no, so I go off to another crappy store to buy a pack. Later I realize I was asking if he had rice (fan), not cigarettes (yan). Of course he had cigarettes.

After sitting on a stool in the store for a while, I am joined by the police. They want gasoline and energy drinks. The kid with the good jump shot who I had played basketball with is riding along in plainclothes. He comes over to visit me, and I give him a stick of chewing gum. We chew in companionable silence for a minute. He asks me where I am going, and when I say Daocheng he gives me a thumbs up. Then he buys me an enormous pack of buckwheat granola bars and a bottle of water. “Good luck,” he says once the uniformed police officer is done harassing some tourists. They leave.

I keep sitting on the stool, next to the horrifically bored shopkeeper whose shop is in utter disarray. He has become tired of staring at me and now looks at the opposite hillside. The mid-day heat is causing the air to shimmer slightly. I think of the happy-seeming Tibetan families just up the hill, bringing in the corn harvest or trying to convince the ox to pull the plough. Often the whole family is out in the field, sheltering under the walnut tree, a few Tibetan ponies grazing on the cornstalks. Here in this crossroads town the flies buzz all afternoon, and garbage chokes the gutters. The shopkeeper leans back in his cushioned chair and avoids looking at me.

At this moment I know, as if I have already known for a long time, that I will not backtrack to a dusty Chinese city, will not take the bus back to Muli, will not fail to enter Tibet. It’s suddenly obvious that I will keep going until that point where the world forces me to turn back. This knowledge is purifying. A nagging question has been answered and it no longer weighs me down. Whereas before I had carried my failure with me, now I feel strongly that I will not give up. I will simply carry on, heading north and west, even if it means surviving on buckwheat granola bars for a while. I feel good in the decision — not excited but resolved.

I pack and hoist my bag, set the straps, bid adieu to the blasé shopkeeper, and start walking north. After a while a Tibetan in a pickup gives me a short hitch before he turns off to cross a bridge. Then a while later a Chinese trucker picks me up and carries me past nightfall. He and I develop a quiet friendship. At some point we stop and take a nap near a massive hydroelectric plant. We are woken by the driver of another truck yelling at us. It turns out that he’s part of a four-truck convoy who happened to be running ahead. We spend the next couple of hours with the windows rolled up, in a cloud of dust as we slowly pick our way down a rutted and potholed dirt track.

At some point the truckdriver gestures at a turnoff and asks me if I want to get out. I keep asking him which road leads to Daocheng and eventually he puts us back on the road up the river, following the three other trucks. At another point I see three closed mineshafts in the course of a few miles on the other side of the dry riverbed. I assume that there had been some aborted attempt at mining up here — the rivers are famously good for panning for gold. Then we come on a great dam that strangely lacks a hydroelectric plant at its base, and I realize that those weren’t mineshafts. They were access points to a vast water diversion that takes the water further downhill, where the energy is greater.

The entire run of the river is an ecological nightmare. In some places the river is sixty feet wide with churning whitewater. In others it is perhaps fifteen feet across and comparatively trickling. Reservoir after reservoir is newly full, with tree trunks half-underwater and the trees dying, half-brown. In one reservoir I see the wall of a house floating near the shore. Around each dead lake stands an eerie silence and a smell of rotting fish. There are signs prohibiting fishing, swimming, diving, and drinking the water. Everywhere the hills are striped with high-voltage electrical cables.

Sometime after sunset our convoy of trucks rolls into a small town on the hill above a dam. My truckdriver explains that we will eat dinner. We go into a small, cinderblock room with a single compact fluorescent lightbulb where a boy a few years younger than me prepares us dinner. He makes extra eggplant for me, delicious and spicy, and there is also very good pickled cabbage. The other truckers all ignore me at first, and then we get on good. They want to talk about the size of my nose, which is only a preamble to talking about the size of my penis. They measure between their palms penises that belong on stallions, and then they ask me how big mine is. I start to indicate a more realistic size, but they shake their heads until I indicate a heroic dimension, then they cheer. Later we inspect American money, and I give a dollar bill to the one who ends up paying for dinner.


I get back in the truck, and we drive up the road another few hundred yards. Then it’s time to part ways. I shake my generous driver’s hand and head down the road. I’m right by a great dam, hundreds of feet high. I’ve learned the logic of Chinese dams by now, and sure enough I’m soon walking down a tunnel hewn from solid stone — no reinforcement — with only my headlamp for light. The eerie drips and echoes, and the great puddles I must skirt around remind me of my Grandpa Bob, once a devoted amateur spelunker in Western Pennsylvania. I personally don’t understand the allure of being underground, but there’s something impressive and otherworldly about those who do. Eventually I make it to the other end of the tunnel.

Here there is a yard for big machinery beside the road. The guard dogs hear my walking sticks and take up a tremendous howling. One manages to slip through the fence and starts coming at me. I warn him with my stick: any closer and you die. Or at least that’s the intention I’m trying to send his way. The dog backs off. I keep walking, occasionally turning back to check on my pursuer. He keeps a healthy distance for a hundred feet, and then I’m in another tunnel. He doesn’t follow. This tunnel has a more uneven floor, covered in puddles, and it seems to go on for longer. Eventually I get scared, looking at the watermarks on the ceiling, hearing the distant echoes of the dogs. I get a little bit spooked, so I sing the theme song toIndiana Jones. It is widely known that you cannot feel fear while adventuring and singing this song to yourself. After ten or fifteen minutes I emerge from the other side of the tunnel and find myself beside another enormous, dead lake.

I don’t want to sleep by this lake, so I commit myself to walking until I am beyond it. There is anyways something charming about night hiking. At least there are fewer cars to stir up dust. After a while a car comes up behind me and slows when it pulls up. The passenger says, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” I say yes, and soon he invites me to take a lift. The man is a programmer from Beijing out here on holiday, and he speaks fairly good English. We talk for a while and then reach his car. It turns out that the Tibetan boy driving him was a mechanic who had been summoned to help change a flat. They drop me off by some stupas on the edge of the dead lake.

I walk for another hour or maybe two, passing an orange tabby cat, a big bullfrog, and a cow. I end up pitching my tent on the side of the road where there’s a flat spot of sharp gravel. Water rushes loud in the gully below — a tributary that today feeds the lake — so this campsite qualifies as being away from the evil-seeming reservoir. I am happy as I pin the guy wires under heavy stones to notice a dry wind blowing from the west. Perhaps my tent will be dry when I pack it on the morrow. I am energized to write in my journal, noting the joy of the sound of this running water and the occasional but truly desperate lowing of a nearby cow before falling into a deep sleep.


Day 8: ??? – ???

I rise early, as I’m uncomfortable with the idea of sleeping on the side of the road during trafficbearing hours. While striking camp I look across the stream at a large Tibetan house with a pleasing puff of smoke coming out of the chimney. I walk down and take water at the stream, avoiding eye contact with a mean-looking bull. Perhaps this was the one making all of the racket last night? I add the iodine tablets and head off down the road, but before I’ve made thirty steps a young Tibetan man stops me and invites me in for tea. I accept and soon am sitting around a wood stove in a great room drinking butter tea. Three or four youngsters are all piled under some heavy blankets in front of Chinese cartoons, while the two older generations of Tibetans — two couples — sit around the morning stove watching the day’s soup bubble. The same butter tea plunger as at Muli Monastery is employed here, and the tea is quite good. They also give me a bowl of day-old rice and pour tea over it. It’s delicious and filling. Eventually, the man offers to take me to Daocheng on his motorbike for 500 kuai, but I decline. That’s all the money I have, about eighty bucks.

I leave and walk up the road. Another forty or fifty steps later a pickup truck comes up behind me. Not knowing how many other cars might come by today I stick out my thumb. They stop and take me on: four Chinese men telling jokes and laughing. I wonder if they will take me all the way to Daocheng, but soon they stop. The road in this section has slumped four or five feet down: the beginning of a landslide. The men pile out of the truck and start chatting with the operators of two backhoes that are starting to try to clear the mess. One hands a five-gallon bucket from the back of the truck up to a backhoe operator. I figure it must be hydraulic fluid.

I walk across the slide area. There are still pebbles occasionally rolling down from one hundred feet or so up the bank. I have to calculate whether it is safer to walk on the slumping side, which seems likely at any moment to slide the rest of the few hundred feet down into the lake, or to walk on the narrow section that is not slumping but might be the target of any falling debris. I walk quickly on the unslumped side and make it to the other side. There, it seems trucks and cars have been stopped for a day at least, waiting for the road to be fixed. Chinese people stand around a makeshift fire, bored. I look back at the slide zone and notice high above it, tilting off the cliff, two woodframe shacks. I wonder what the fatality rate for backhoe operators clearing roads in rural Tibet is, and then I continue on my way.


I walk down the road for a long time, not seeing any cars in either direction. There are herds of goats perched high up on hillsides and herds of yaks just barely off the road. I also encounter several pig families, piglets running in fear from me until they reach a certain distance from their mothers, at which point they press themselves against the side of the road till I have passed. A Tibetan girl is collecting special tree branches and tying them into great bundles. Perhaps they are for burning as incense. I pass through a Yi village and smile with an old woman who has many gold teeth and wears her people’s distinctive headdress.

Then I come upon a section of road that is stunningly beautiful: rocky crags leaning over the road, great spires reaching from the lake up towards the heavens, and a sheer cliff face that looks to my unstudied eye to be a spectacular piece of climbing. Hundreds of feet down there is a little creek that must over the eons have carved these spectacular formations. It runs swift for a ways and then slows into a sandy trickle as it meets the lake. Some garbage bobs against the shore.


A ways further on I catch a ride from an older Chinese fellow in a white jeep. Before riding in this vehicle I don’t know if I ever really understood the meaning of the term, “Bucket of Bolts.” I can report that this car really does sound like a mechanic’s toolchest on a trampoline. There are all manner of different clanks and clunks in the engine. The transmission lets out a wide range of different whines. And the suspension is so thoroughly shot that one regularly hears and then promptly feels the shocks bottoming out. Furthermore there is a well-developed exhaust leak contributing serious gasoline fumes to the cab, which linger even with the windows rolled all the way down, as we keep them for the entire journey.

Luckily the driver is a nice Chinese fellow, probably looks older than he is and he looks pretty old. We develop a strange sort of camaraderie, both trying not to hit our heads on the roof too hard. We have varying success. At a few points he takes a set of chuckholes a little bit too fast and the whole car leaps again and again. This gives me some paranoia about my bag falling out of the back. I keep turning around when I see a big bump coming, just to have the pleasure of watching my green canvas bag leap up in the air and momentarily into view. Just about the time I’ve convinced myself the bag won’t fall out, however, I start getting scared for my computer, which sits in the middle of the pack. Again I wallow in miserable paranoia for a bit, till I manage to attain a tired acceptance that whatever happens will happen, and there’s no good worrying.

We drive for hours and hours, passing even more dry streambeds and dead lakes. At one point my driver manages to run the undercarriage aground in a particularly deep rut. The two of us ineffectually try to extract the jeep until some competent Tibetan young guys driving a delivery truck come along. One of them takes charge of the situation, requisitioning a long pole from a disassembled log cabin sitting on the side of the road. The three Tibetans and I use this to lever the jeep out of the puddle on one side while the driver gets muddy placing rocks and boards under the raised tires. Finally the Tibetan leader gets in the jeep and drives it crazily out from its ditch. We all get back in our vehicles, and the old Tibetan woman who has been watching the undertaking while continually gesturing at the turnip she cradles and saying something to me in Tibetan continues on her way.

This hitch takes me so far up the river that we pass hydroelectric plants still under construction. The river here is strong-flowing and beautiful, sometimes taking up the entirety of the gorge, which leaves us thankful for the crude, unlit tunnels. I in particular am thankful not to be walking through them. But eventually I develop a slight headache from the fumes, and I’m not totally disappointed when we finally reach the trademark tents of the Chinese road crew and my driver visits with his buddies and sends me on my way.


The road here is nearly abandoned and totally beautiful. I walk for a long time, only encountering one truck coming the other way. These truckers wish me well on my journey and feed me all manner of delicious pastries along with giving me a Hi-Tiger. They draw me a map that doesn’t seem to be much use, and they take a picture with me. I sit on the side of the road and eat the food I cannot take with me. I realize I have not been afraid all day long.

Over the next few hours several cars pass me, and finally one agrees to take me. Three Chinese tourist men are going to Litang, and I ask them to take me. I cram my bag in the back seat with me (the trunk is full of wet bedding), and we go speeding off. This car has great suspension, gosh what good suspension, I keep thinking. We pass a view of a distant hillside spotted with deciduous trees all yellow and red. We also pass a strange section of forest that is blocked off by chain-link fence and cyclone wire. I wonder about it as we pass. But after perhaps twenty minutes the Chinese men tell me to get out of the car. The driver attempts to trade his cheap sunglasses for mine. I refuse. Before they drive away, I show them the map the truckers wrote for me. No good, they say, and they draw another one. This one’s equally in Chinese and so to me rather useless. They drive off, and I look at a beautiful field and consider camping in it. But no, I’ve only hiked a few hours today and really should press on.

After twenty minutes or so, I come upon a beautiful Tibetan couple taking an evening walk with their three-year-old son. I show them the map I have saved on my phone and ask about the way to Daocheng. They have to think a long time about how one could get from here to there — we don’t seem to be near any of the towns on the map — but then they agree that if I continued up this road I would eventually reach a town where I could turn left and get to Daocheng. More importantly, they ask if I’ve eaten. I take them up on the invitation, in part because I know that they have working telephones, and I really feel like I should make contact with my family and with Hannibal up in Xining who is eventually expecting me.


I walk with the husband back up the hill to the compound ringed with prison-esque fences. (Much later I find out it was some sort of mine.) At one point, frustrated at our lack of communication, he calls a young girl who speaks English and hands the phone to me. We have a desultory conversation — her English isn’t that great, my Chinese worse — and I hand the phone back to him. We make it to their modest cement-block house. The woman starts a wok filled with water to boiling atop a wood stove. Meanwhile I manage to get the husband to call Hannibal on his telephone. The first thing I say is, “Can you tell my mom I’m okay?” It’s a relief to hear my friend’s voice, to speak fluent English, to think about an end to my trip. Hannibal talks to the man in Chinese and determines that I’m actually on a road that leads to Litang — the stop I was intending on making after Daocheng. I’ve already crossed out of Muli County and am well off my map. We decide it would be easier and wiser if I just continued to Litang.

Afterwards the wife makes me a massive bowl of instant noodles — beef and sour vegetable flavor, though we leave the beef packet out — and she adds a bunch of dark-green lettuce and two fresh eggs to the pot. It’s delicious and filling. While I slurp great quantities of noodle, they draw me a crude map of where I’m going. Then the husband considers it, shakes his head, and asks for a fresh sheet of paper. Now he draws a beautiful, intricate map showing the course of the river and where the road departs from and rejoins it. I point at each named place on the map and transliterate it into a crude pinyin.

As dusk begins to settle over the deep valley I pack my bag back up. I give some stickers to the son, who immediately starts sticking them on nearby trees and doors and vehicles. Then I walk a ways further till I find a small field next to the river and pitch my tent there.


Day 9: ??? – Litang

I wake in the middle of the night to the sound of a field mouse eating one of the buckwheat granola bars I had left outside the tent. I pull them back inside and return to deep sleep with dreams I don’t remember. I wake up to the sound of my alarm and look at my phone. It’s six-thirty in the morning. I go back to sleep and wake sometime later to find that my phone is dead, so I won’t be able to take any pictures today. I strike my very damp camp, leaving the nibbled granola bar for the mouse.

I walk up the road for a long time, alternately filled with the beauty of the place and depressed by the constant press of a young pine forest. I fantasize about a wide valley floor, no trees at all, ringed by dramatic peaks. What is this Tibet with no nomads?

Eventually I start up a tall hill, heavily switchbacked for motor vehicles. These have been the bane so far of my walk: a hiker can go pretty much straight up and down a mountain, but not without a path. Instead every kilometer of crowflight takes three kilometers of walking back and forth up and down gentle slopes. However this hillside shows evidence of once having had a much steeper road up to the ridge. I decide to take it.

I head up a gully towards the steep road cut. It’s more vertical than horizontal, and I’m thankful to be going up. Climbing feels good; descending hurts my knees. I reach the road cut, which is really more of a lumpy landslide than a track for cars. Soon I can feel all of the muscles in my legs and I press onward, invigorated by the burning. After twenty minutes, though, the road ends abruptly. I consider turning back, but it’s too demoralizing. Instead I hallucinate a goat track up into the pine-covered hillside and decide to press on.

There is no goat track. Also, the slope here is more of a cliff than a hillside. Somehow the pines cling to its side, and I do to. It’s awkward with my heavy pack catching branches and shifting my center of gravity back. But at least I’m going up, where I can grab knobby roots and flaking trunks and hardy shrubs for support. I make maybe one hundred yards of progress, till the slope levels out a little bit. The road, the real road, is nowhere in sight.

I cut through a wide patch of brambles. The sun is hot. There the road is. I clamber up onto it and throw my bag down. Made it. I drink some water and listen as a distant whine of a motorcycle winds its way up the valley, my head filled with fantasies of a vacant back seat. Instead it’s a caravan of three motorcycles, each carrying three Tibetans plus provisions. We all stop at the pass to look at prayer flags and share cigarettes.

The rest of the day is a long valley with terraced Tibetan villages every few miles overlooking the river. Some of them are abandoned and crumbling back into the mud from which they’re constructed. Others are choked with garbage and crude new stupas and lazy strays. Tall, heavily budding pot plants grow in courtyard gardens; spindly-weak ones choke the ditch beside the road, competing with other weeds. A single tractor passes me going the other way. The exhaust pipe angles up and out, pointing its carbon-black exhale at me

Day grows long. The valley folds itself back up into a gorge. I start leering at flat spots, though I know I should keep walking for a while longer. A motorcycle catches up to me and stops to chat. A Chinese man with a real smile and a horseshoe of hair around a shiny bald pate. He’s also traveling from Muli to Litang, and I’m to understand he plans to open up shop as a carpenter. Behind him on the bike he has a modest, well-built wood toolchest and three handsaws with blades angled at forty-five degrees. He’s trying to give me a ride, and I keep thanking him but indicating that there’s literally no room for me. We shake hands and he rides off.

Another hour of walking later a pickup truck comes roaring up behind me. It’s filled with four Tibetan men wearing threadbare, elegant suits and mala necklaces. I explain where I’m going and ask if they’ll give me a ride. The driver shrugs. One guy gets out and takes a leak. I throw my bag in the bed and climb in after it. We drive up the steep, rutted one-lane road at a high speed. Soon we pass the carpenter from Muli, and I wave at him. He smiles and waves back, buzzing slowly down the evening road on his loaded bike, looking for all the world like a Miyazaki character. Four bone-jarring hours later I’m chilled, my face is caked with road dust, my soul has been lifted by a smolder of sunset seen from a high pass, and I’m in Litang searching in the dark for my hostel. I find it, take a shower, and go to sleep without dinner. My period of lostness is over.

View from the hill above Litang Monastery.

View from the hill above Litang Monastery.


Travelogue Excerpt – Muli Monastery to Wachang

What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This was originally written on October 16 and sent out October 26.


Day 5: Muli Monastery – Wachang

I wake up to a loud voice: “Jasper, Jasper!” It takes me a little while to sort out where I am. The off-white sky crossed by two black stripes; the cocoon of impossibly perfect warmth. “Jasper!” I sit up and unzip the tent and then the condensation-damp fly. Outside Jasi and Tsien-lu are bundled up against the pre-dawn chill. “Do you want to have butter tea with my uncle?” I agree and wrench myself from the sleeping bag. We walk up the broad staircase to the main monastery building, listening to the early chirp of birds and the gravelly drone of monks chanting in the temple. Jasi tells me that the very tall building behind the main temple has been built to house a seven-story copper Buddha just being finished. The monks are busy working on the Buddha, consecrating it, and filling it with holy scriptures and relics. Part of Jasi’s reason for making pilgrimage this fall, beyond sharing his heritage with Tsien-lu, is to place a large piece of jade in the Buddha. The piece of jade was belonged to Jasi’s grandparents and was kept as a holy relic. These grandparents’ parents helped build the original Muli Monastery, but they also watched it be torn to the ground.

On the third floor of the monks’ quarters we find Jasi’s uncle’s apartment. It is dark. We sit on carpeted benches and drink butter tea and fresh yak cheese, which is remarkably and thankfully feta-like. We wait for the water to boil in a tiny rough clay teapot that the uncle puts directly on the electric heating ring built into his low table. Jasi and Tsien-lu struggle to explain why the uncle had become a monk. Finally they point at his phone: “Wine-cup bearer.” I say, “Oh, he’s an alcoholic,” and they nod. Cupbearer actually has a different meaning in the West, but that’s okay. He was an alcoholic, and the family paid for him to become a monk. Now he hasn’t touched the stuff in many years and instead carries out his ritual functions in a supportive community. It strikes me that as far as rehabs go, becoming a Tibetan monk is probably pretty effective.

The water boils; the green tea leaves all foam up and threatening to overtop the pot. The uncle deftly moves it away from the burner at the last moment. Then he takes out a device that looks like a very tall and narrow mortar and pestle or a tiny butter churn. An eighteen-inch wooden tube with a plunger of the same length. From a tub that sits on the floor he scoops a generous spoonful of butter and drops it into the device. Then, holding the device with his left hand, he pours the tea from the teapot. Now begins the exciting part: he deftly in-outs the plunger again and again, making an exciting noise and each time the liquid threatening to spurt out onto the wall. The uncle is a deft practitioner in the art of making butter tea, however, and after a few minutes of sucking and plunging, if you will, the tea is ready. He pours it through a sieve into another pot and then distributes hot butter tea to the three of us. The emulsion is perfect –– no pools of butter form on top to stick in your moustache. It’s delicious. Savory, rich, and a spreading warmth in your stomach. Soon it’s time for round two and then three. In between rounds we eat yak cheese and a flattish corn cake that given another thousand years of culinary evolution might become a fine tortilla.

After breakfast, Jasi and Tsien-lu leave me to my own devices. I walk a kora of the monastery, circumambulating it in a clockwise direction. Then I walk up to a hilltop adorned with prayer flags. I think to myself that it was from this hilltop that in 1924 Joseph Rock took the first photograph of Muli Monastery. If you will indulge a few sentences of poorly-researched historicizing, I will now tell you about Muli and Joseph Rock. Rock was an Austrian botanist and adventurer as well as correspondent for the National Geographic Society. He chose an adequately remote part of the globe to explore: Muli formed the outer reaches of Tibet and was accessible only through a perilous series of deep gorges. Marching a military force to Muli would be difficult — to administrate it from afar before the period of the internal combustion engine must have taken a reasonably strong government. The late Qing Dynasty was unable to hold Muli as a vassal: indeed much of Sichuan was under the control of various warlords, and Lhasa had never had control of the far-flung county. Instead, Joseph Rock found a lama king ruling a very modest kingdom from his seat at Muli Monastery. Rock ended up making friends with the minor potentate, and even today he’s a kind of folk hero in Muli County — the First Westerner. (When Marijn, Talita and I were eating yucky yak cheese dumplings in the new city also called Muli, a Chinese girl tried to recruit us to take a busride to “Joseph Rock’s house,” which I guess there’s an outside chance actually still exists.) (Most of my information here is coming from Michael Woodhead’s blog,, and any errors are my own fault.)

Up on the hillside I try, without having the original as a reference, to take a picture from the same vantage point. Unfortunately I totally fail. Nevertheless, I think it’s instructive to compare Rock’s shot from 1924, Michael Woodhead’s from 1994, and mine from 2015.


Back at the tent, I eat some cookies for lunch and write for a while. Eventually Jasi comes by and tells me he has found out some things about my situation. For one, there is a bus from the crossroads below the monastery to a town called Dongla in Tibetan. From there I can take a bus to Daocheng. But, he suggests, I might follow him and Tsien-lu to the town of Wachang, just up the road. Maybe another, even better solution will present itself there. I write for another few hours and then take one last tour of the monastery.

Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are almost always spectacularly beautiful. This beauty comes not just from the architecture, though there is something very pleasing about their unfolding geometries, the fractal adornments around every opening and under every eave (eat your heart out Christopher Alexander), and the traditional barrier wall surrounding the sacred space and separating it from the profane. Even better, though, are the people actively using the space: the saffron-robed student monks and the old pilgrims wrapped in heavy nomadic robes, the elderly abbot and his attendant walking their twice-daily kora, even the Western and Chinese tourists turned momently inward by the space. (I’m not speaking here of the Chinese guys with fantastically phallic photographic equipment, standing at the very center of the courtyard, shouting for the monks to pose.) But I would argue that the very best, most soul-stirring thing about Tibetan monasteries is their siting. They almost to a one stand in outrageously beautiful locations: the south faces of hills looking out at beautiful snow-capped mountains; the center of great grasslands ringed by farming villages and, beyond, great peaks; or even at the base of jagged-toothed mountains, looking thousands of feet down at dramatic gorges.

This last is the site of Muli Monastery, a great upgrade on the city of Muli, which before it was elevated to be the county seat had been called Bowa. Before I leave the monastery, I take some pictures of the great tarps laid out in the courtyard before the main temple to facilitate the drying of barley and corn, the two staple foodstuffs of the community. In the background is holy Mount Mitzuga, in which the local god lives.


An hour’s walk later I am in Wachang, formerly known as Muli township, now literally “Shingle Factory.” It’s a small town around a few bends in the hill from Muli Bompa. I can’t find Jasi and Tsien-lu, so I sit at the top of town, on the ledge in front of an old, traditional Tibetan building, and write a letter. I’m interrupted after maybe half-an-hour by my very generous friends from before. They’ve found on my behalf a group of teachers that is leaving in two days for Dongla, and these teachers have offered to take me with them in a spare seat. In two days time I am to wait at this exact spot at seven in the morning and in such a way I will be given a ride. It seems that God or gods or perhaps just the universe smiles on my journey. Jasi asks if I know where I’m sleeping, and when I say I don’t he secures permission from the local elementary school — across the street — for me to camp on their grounds. Jasi and Tsien-lu are in a rush, though, to find a hotel for themselves, and they ask me to meet them at the school in an hour.

I find a likely camping spot on the hill above the basketball court, but I’m too shy to set up my tent while kids are running up and down the steps that lead I think to the high school. Instead I sit on my bag and wait for the inevitable crowd to form. Soon it has; beautiful Chinese people about my own age, trying to communicate over our linguistic gulf. After a long while of pointing, smiling, and looking at my phrasebook, I understand. There’s food to be had up the hill. I join them and soon am in the middle of a great Tibetan rehearsal dinner. The groom’s father is running around, dispensing loose cigarettes and bottles of baijiu. A team of boys is bringing out dish after dish after dish. I try some of them, though I’m not sure everybody understands that not only do I not eat meat, I also don’t eat white meat, don’t eat fish, don’t eat clams, don’t eat chicken.

After having a good time for a while in the silence of the deaf mute, I am led to understand that a group of boys want to play basketball with me. I say yes — this is my rule, to always seize an opportunity, and it serves me well. I carry my bag down the hill and get ready to kick the kids off their court, but it turns out the Tibetan and Chinese boys want to play somewhere else, down the street. Then we have to do a dance where I explain that I’m waiting for my friend to come back. Eventually we use someone’s phone to call Jasi, and five minutes later he comes out of breath up the street. He apologizes for being late — they had found a hotel and ended up needing just a little nap. The apology is totally unnecessary. We go back to the school and set up the tent together. Jasi is smitten with the flimsy plastic and mesh cloth and aluminum poles that miraculously become a domicile in just a few minutes. He says he’s going to get one for himself. I should also mention that this delightful soul wrote his final paper in college on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and he likes talking to me about Alan Ginsberg and Bill Burroughs and the whole Beat Movement. I tell him that if he comes to California I’ll take him to City Lights in San Francisco, the Potala of the Beats. We finish setting up the tent and say goodbye. The tent is in a typically beautiful setting.CampsiteinWachang1

Then I race down the hill to play some basketball. I find everyone playing in the court behind the police station. There’s a wide range of ages and physical abilities. One more chunky fellow is in the business of aggressively fouling anybody about to take a shot. Another kid is lanky and quick, wearing an Allen Iverson jersey. He and I form the core of a team of four for a while, handily defeating all takers, even when I get cramps from the exertion and the altitude. There’s one good shooter on the other team, a handsome Chinese kid about my age with a killer midrange jumper. After a while they want to mix up the teams. I’m stuck with the worst players, against the best. This is the only time in my life I’ve been compared to Kobe Bryant. My guys are playing utterly stupid defense. They keep dropping coverage on the other team’s stars, expecting me to run out and contest shots on the perimeter, when my skills are undeniably in the key. (Especially here, where I have six inches on most of them.) Somehow, though, we gut out a victory. Afterwards I wash my face and arms by a spigot, and the best players linger. I gather them around and try to run a little sign-language basketball clinic. Takeaway: when you’re playing defense, you havealways to keep your arms above the waist. The handsome kid with the good jumper seems to absorb the lesson.

I return to my tent and lay down for a minute, ecstatic from the exertion. I write some very happy, optimistic drivel in my journal. Then I freshen up for the wedding, put on my nice gray knit sweater, and walk back up the hill. The feast has shifted into a different gear, with a handful of tables full-up and surrounded by people watching high-pace card games. Although part of me would rather sit at one of the empty tables and meditate on the meaning of life, I find one where I recognize a few of the faces and pull up a stool. For a while they play cards: a crazy game where the whole deck is dealt and then they take turns slapping pairs and straights and full houses on the table, screaming in Chinese. After ten hands it’s no clearer to me what makes a winning hand. Nevertheless each hand moves twenty kuai, more than three dollars, from each loser to the victor. Most of the teams are male-female pairs, with one running off to chat with friends or drink a toast and then returning to relieve the other to do same. One Chinese girl, though, playing alone, seems to be winning hand after hand.

Eventually another course comes out from the kitchen and the cards disappear. We peel boiled potatoes and eat them from our hands. Someone pours me a paper cup full of beef broth and I drink it, disgusted. They make fun of me for not eating meat, and we raise many toasts of thin Chinese beer, and then they try to get me to play the age-old Chinese game of choose-the-prettiest-girl. First I choose an older Tibetan lady, resplendent in all white. She’s overjoyed at my discernment, but the others are disappointed. The Tibetan woman is married and so they can’t try to set me up with her. I shake her husband’s hand and compliment him on his good fortune. Then the others want me to play again. I refuse several times. Though one Chinese girl is really lovely, my Western sentimentality — loveliness is something more internal than external, and moreover it’s cruel and ungentlemanly to insult any woman’s beauty — proves firm. The table is disappointed and gradually loses interest in the bearded foreigner.

Around this time a girl from the group of teachers comes up to me and tells me that they can’t give me a ride after all. One of their drivers has had an emergency and had to go home. There won’t be any room for me. I ask her about the bus to Dongla, but she says there isn’t one. She asks what I’ll do, and I say I don’t know, probably walk. At this, she tells me that I should at least wait a day, like I was planning on. They might be able to find another driver, and they’ll come tell me if they do.

The forced bonhomie of the wedding turns metallic in my mouth. The cheery sentiments I had written in my journal after the basketball game seem dumb or at least naive. This is what I had written: “New idea — Trust fall the world. Be perfectly defenseless, incapable, powerless — and let the world catch you. Remember the kindness of strangers. Be reminded of it.” It’s not that there isn’t truth there, but it was a kind of laziness for me to think I was incapable or powerless. I have legs, a tent, a few days worth of food. I might have to make my own way to Daocheng. The thought is scary. I drain my beer and walk down the hill to my tent.


Day 6: Wachang

I wake to the sound of rain on my tent fly, and I let myself fall back into a sweet half-sleep, like taking a bath. My sleeping bag is very warm, and I am content. Eventually I hear again the call, “Jasper, Jasper!” I unzip the tent and the fly to find once again Jasi and Tsien-lu. They are bundled up and look cold, but they wanted to see me one more time. We say our goodbyes, and I promise to write. Jasi tells me that if I have any problems I should call him. I think about the problem that arose last night but say nothing — they’ve already been so generous to me. They wave a final adieu and go to stand under their umbrella and wait for the bus back to Muli. I zip the tent back up and go back to sleep.


I finally pull myself out of my sleeping bag when my bladder won’t let me wait a moment more. I pee behind some bushes and crawl back to my cocoon of warmth and personal, private space. I read the entirety of the one book I brought, The House of 20,000 Books by Sasha Abramsky. I had started it in the airport in Hong Kong and then lugged it all the way to Wachang. In this manner I spend the morning and early afternoon in a creaky old house in London with a singular expert on Marxist and European Jewish book collecting. This man, Chimen Abramsky, shows me the great gems of his collection, and he also invites me to the salon he and his wife hold in their dining room and kitchen. Books, well-loved books, line almost every wall. It’s like the dream of being home, or of being at a learned friend’s house, and it lifts my soul. Then I read a long paper by one H. Taubes about village fortification in northern China. A lot of it goes over my head, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

At some point a group of Tibetan and Chinese schoolgirls assembles on the terrace below my tent. They titter when I respond to their timid halloes, and eventually they muster the courage to ask me how to pronounce a word from their primer: “Competition.” Later they bring me a big handful of walnuts. As it turns out I have camped beneath the branches of a great walnut tree. Kids climb the tree with a big stick and whack its branches so that their friends can collect what falls. The walnuts are perfectly fresh and delicious. The girls who bring me walnuts as if I were a mendicant are horribly embarrassed when I try to take their photograph.


Eventually I run out of reading material. Lonely Planet China is so breezily researched and scattered in its approach to Chinese history that it annoys even me. The Kindle that Virginia kindly lent me for the trip is out of power. The stuff I wrote in my journal a week ago even seems obnoxious. So instead I spend the evening trying to write part of my novel and failing. The whole day has gone by and none of the teachers have come to update me on my ride situation. I eat a dinner of candied peanuts and shrink-wrapped tofu. Then I set my alarm early for the bus and fall asleep.


Travelogue Excerpt – Kunming to Muli Monastery

What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on October 12, 2015.KunmingHostelRooftop 


My twenty-fifth birthday. Buy apples, pomegranates, toilet paper, a bar of laundry soap, and a tiny towel. Wash clothes by hand on roof terrace of hostel. Shower and shampoo my hair. Attempt to get SIM card for phone at China Mobile, unsuccessfully.

I am terrified. My stomach on its own is clenching and occasionally its muscles buzz, like a phone. I do breathing exercises to calm down.

I’ve already done battle with China — its strange language, its rude smells and manners and streets, its essential foreignness — for a week now. It has left me exhausted and nervous for the deeper vulnerability that I know is yet to come.

At this nadir, filled with self-doubt, I receive my first friendblessing. Conrad the Swede is 18, keenly intelligent, and just arrived in Kunming to start a month-long apprenticeship with the American owner of the hostel and a nearby brewpub. He brings a vast plastic suitcase that immediately and permanently obstructs the walkway in our tiny dorm room. He speaks English at one volume only — loud, nearly shouting — and he wants to talk about philosophy. We immediately hit it off.

Over dinner at a Sichuanese place with great mushrooms and tangy-hot tofu, he asks me about my trip. Telling him about it, I grow excited again. I relax. It’s a good birthday dinner, as much as such a feast away from home and family can be satisfying. Afterwards, walking back to the hostel, the rising full moon sits red and giant, nestled in the modest skyline of Kunming.

I will leave. The adventure will happen. Yes.




I wake up early and pack my half-dry t-shirts and socks. I tighten the straps on my bag. Conrad and I eat a breakfast of muesli, yogurt, fruit, and the last good coffee for a long time. I look over my maps: the Lonely Planet map of Sichuan, with a dotted line I’ve drawn between Muli and Daocheng, where no road shows; a series of grayscale terrain printouts from Google Maps. My research has not revealed a bus route or major highway between the two towns. The maps do not exactly inspire confidence.

I ask Conrad if he would like to come help me find a cab to take me to the Northwest Bus Station. Of course he would. I get that blush of relief, like my whole body unclenches. This feeling of relief surprises me. I don’t know why I still so much need my hand held.

We find a cab by the Green Lake Hotel, a concrete highrise with vast plateglass windows and rooms starting at $300USD a night. The driver seems to understand the sentence I earlier asked the hotel attendant to write out for me: Please take me to the Northwest Bus Station. I shake Conrad’s hand, he says a bon voyage, and I embark.

Thirty minutes later I’ve been deposited at the East Bus Station. By the time I realize this, though, my cabbie is long gone. My doom has not jammed.

I sweat and despair for a few minutes. People screaming at me, “Hello, hello!” Nowhere clean to sit. I almost despair. There’s nothing to do, though, except solve the problem. I dredge my memory to try to figure out how to say “Northwest.” Because of certain very literal translations I’ve run into, I suspect that West might come before North in Chinese: Westnorth. I know that North is bei, because Beijing means “Northern Capital.” And I have a hunch that Xian, another ancient capital, might have West in its name.

I convene a conference of bike taxi drivers and do a frantic dance with them, jabbing at my precious Chinese sentence and saying “Xi-bei, xi-bei,” over and over again. After conferring amongst themselves, the young cabbies who hold motorcycle helmets only as symbols of their trade, never wearing them, join me in my chant. “Xi-bei-buo, xi-bei-buo,” they say, nodding. We agree on a price, bungee my bag to a bike, and speed off.


I have no further trouble buying my ticket, and soon I’m in the dusty departures hall, looking out at a lot filled with the usual menagerie of buses. Chinese buses come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and levels of cleanliness. Nevertheless, when thirty of them crowd a lot, it can be hard to tell one from the next. I realize I will have to ask for help again. (In fact, constantly asking for help is the nature of successful travel in China. I just don’t know it yet.) I take out my ticket and approach a nice-looking girl, but at the last moment her boyfriend swoops her into conversation. Who else looks likely to help this deaf and dumb foreigner? There’s a quiet-looking boy. I steel myself and approach him.

He looks at my ticket and smiles. He’s also going to Panzhihua. “Let’s go,” he says in English. After boarding the bus we discover that our assigned seats are right next to each other. We share a cigarette, exchange names, and then Davey John and I are friends.

Dawei Zhong, as it turns out, works at the hydroelectric power plant in Panzhihua which, he proudly informs me via the translate feature on his phone, is “The Biggest of the Eighty.” I wonder what this number means, though I’ll soon find out firsthand that the Yangtze and its tributaries are dammed again and again and again. Davey is from Nanking, and his brother studies at SUNY Old Westbury. His English improves the whole ride to Panzhihua.


At the border between Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces, the police board the bus. They demand our ID’s and spend a long time handling and photographing my passport. At some point a more senior policeman boards the bus, equipped with both a sidearm and an AR-15 on a shoulder strap. He takes the backpack of a twelve-year-old boy and intimately examines it, disgorging every pocket, palpating each strap and inch of canvas. Over ten minutes his face shifts from annoyed to furious and sweating profusely. Eventually, having found nothing, he has to shove the schoolbooks and socks and snacks back in the bag. He hands it to the boy, grimacing and still beadily examining him. Then he walks off the bus. As we pull out of the police border station we pass the “Illegal Examination Room.”

We pass fields of corn and wheat and hay and quinoa. A goatherd under a parasol. Endless haystacks and dozens of brand-new, plastic hoop houses. We watch Japanese girls drive recklessly in Drift Special: Beauty Battle. We go through tunnels that last five minutes. We eventually arrive.


Panzhihua is an industrial town built on the slopes of a gorge. Rock cliffs race hundreds of feet up above the road. The swift, broad Yangtze subdivides town, crossed by a half-dozen bridges. It is a hot four o’clock when we arrive.

Davey has offered to help me find a hotel in town, but I tell him I need to buy my bus ticket to Muli first. With his help we discover that there are no buses from Panzhihua to Muli. After a long discussion with a husky-voiced, chain-smoking fellow who’s hanging out in the ticketing hall, we determine that the only official way to get to Muli is to take a bus from Xichang, the next city over. I buy a ticket for the five-thirty bus to Xichang, and Davey walks me all the way to the ticket-taker’s booth. We shake hands and promise to stay in touch.

On the bus to Xichang I have a long conversation with a policeman going home to spend his day off with his wife and one-year-old son. Using various dictionaries, we talk about basketball, hotpot, and California. He tells me that he is not Han Chinese but instead Yi. He speaks some of his native language for me, and it’s beautiful, though I don’t think I can describe how it sounds.

As we approach Xichang I psych myself up to ask him for a hotel recommendation. But then, just as we pull through the outskirts of town, he says goodbye, the bus stops, and he gets off. We continue on without him, and my terror returns. It is dark, and I’ve been traveling for twelve hours, and I’m hungry. I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping.

We pull into the bus station, and as soon as I get off a woman comes up to me and offers me a room for 60 kuai. I follow her up the street and take the room sight unseen. It turns out to be fine, and they have zero interest in checking my passport. I lay down for a while and then go eat an enormous feast of spicy eggplant and garlicky cabbage. I like Xichang.



I wake to a great windstorm and watch as dawn reddens the surrounding hills. Lightning flashes to the south, but there is no thunder. The street below is abandoned but for the occasional motorbike speeding by. I pack my bags in the soft light. Downstairs, I have to wake up the boy sleeping on the lobby couch so that he can take the bike lock off the grease-smeared architectural glass doors to let me out. On the street, I almost lose my hat. A few dumpling shops are open, early risers sitting in the back, where the winds are stiller.

At the bus station the ticketseller refuses to give me a ticket to Muli. She thinks for a second and then writes down a sentence on a scrap of paper, puts it through the slot, and starts shout-talking with the next customer. I take the scrap of paper, confused for a moment, and then head out to the street. There I find a cabbie, show him the piece of paper, say, “Muli,” and he nods. We drive to another bus station.

I buy the last ticket for the 7:40AM bus and go queue for it. The bus ticket claims that the journey will take seven hours. The policeman last night said that it would take ten. I end up spending eleven hours on the bus, my butt falling asleep, my legs growing stiff, my bladder aching for hours at a time. I invent a TV show called, “So You Think You Can Potty Dance.” I start a novel with the line, “It is a fact universally acknowledged that when you’re holding your pee you can’t fart.” Just when I think I might wet myself, we stop at a clifftop toilet with an odor entirely its own. It’s the nicest place I’ve ever been.

Somehow my assigned seat puts me right next to the two other foreigners going to Muli this fall. They are Talita, a Brazilian lady living in Shanghai, and Marijn, a Dutchman promoting trade in Chongqing. They are spending a few days of vacation in one of the more remote corners of Tibet, kind of on accident. Nobody seems to mention the great difficulty of reaching Muli.

Once you have fought through about seven hours of muddy, bumpy busride, you enter Muli County. There are countless prayer flags at the pass, and a dozen great piles of Mani Stones. Also there are many signs and banners, all only in Chinese. There is no settlement of Tibetans here nor monastery. Instead just great piles of carved rocks, none weathered, all maybe three years old.


The bus jerks down skinny lips of dirt road, often terribly close to the thousand-foot plunge to the base of the gorge. When a car comes the other way both parties have to stop and then creep around each other. It is beautiful and nearly impassable terrain. How anyone lived here before the ubiquitous Chinese road crews took up residence is anyone’s guess.

Across the gorge are a series of Buddhist and Communist shrines. First a hillside portrait of Avalokiteshvara that must be two hundred feet from bottom to top. Around another bend, hundreds of twenty-foot tall flagpoles with long, long flags in an array that forms the Buddhist swastika. Next, on the opposing hillside stand the ubiquitous Chinese characters — white on a red field — saying, “Long Live The Communist Party Of China.” These are festooned in prayer flags. A few minutes later we see a giant starburst composed of multi-colored strands of fabric, and next to it reclines an enormous hillside portrait of Chairman Mao.

Below us, the valley floor is changed. No longer is there a ribbon of rushing water carving ever deeper its channel through the mountains. It is replaced with a large, dull lake. The color is overcooked pea soup. It is opaque. On the banks, a few old Chinese men tend fishing lines. Two cigar boats speed across it. The drama of the gorge is gone, slain by a dam.


Arriving in Muli I say goodbye to Marijn and Talita. I walk up to the top of town trying to get a view, but tall concrete walls block all the streets. As high up as I can get, but still with no vista, I set my bag down and have a cigarette. Trash blows in the evening breeze. Beyond a wrought iron fence there is a small graveyard. Stray dogs wander around, giving me side-eye. A Tibetan lady in a ratty coat comes up the hill, carrying two pails of slop on a milkmaid’s yoke. She stops next to me and sets down the pails. We smile at each other — she catches her breath — I smoke. Then she picks up her load and continues up the hill.

Back on the main street I’m having no luck finding a hotel. They seem to be all booked up, and I remember someone telling me that right now was Golden Week — a national week of vacation for students and government workers. Finally I break down and ask for help. A crowd forms as I gesture at my phrasebook, and I choose a young boy who seems to speak English to be my guide. We go to hotel after hotel, each time turned away because there’s no room or they don’t take foreigners. Meantime my guide turns out to be able to say only one word, “Restroom.” He repeats this like a mantra, gesturing at me, “Restroom, restroom, restroom!” At one hotel he tries to book a room with his ID card that he’ll then let me stay at. I try to tell him this is a bad idea — we could both get in trouble. What I actually say is, “Don’t want, don’t want.”

Back on the street it’s dark and crowded. A police SUV is making its way towards us, red and blue lights spinning manically. The boy gestures at me manically, “Arrest you! Arrest you!” I have a moment of fear and laugh nervously at the absurdity of the situation. The cops roll by us though, and there is no problem. “Restroom,” he says and leads me back down the hill.

Finally we find the one hotel in town that takes foreigners. Marijn and Talita are there trying to check in. My guide waves goodbye and leaves, surely not having expected to spend so much time helping me. The hotel has only the most expensive rooms available. For about $28USD I get a suite with queen bed, several couches, and a well-stocked mini-bar. I lay fully clothed on the bed for a while.

After some time, Marijn knocks on the door. “Jasper, do you want to come to dinner with us?” I immediately agree and hurry out of the room. We eat desultory Tibetan food — we can’t finish the pungent, greasy yak cheese dumplings — and pose for pictures with everybody in the restaurant. We make plans to have breakfast the next morning, and then we go off to our beds.

Just as I’m finishing my journal entry and about to go to sleep, a forceful knock comes at the door. I pull on some clothes and go answer it. Assembled in the hallway are the entirety of the hotel’s night staff, a uniformed police officer, and Talita. She, bless her heart, translates for me. The policeman wants to take some photos of my passport, and he also wants to know where I plan on going. I tell him Daocheng is my destination, and he says I cannot go. The rains have made the roads terrible, and it’s too dangerous. Don’t go.

I shut the door and laugh. In some ways it’s a relief to have to go back to Chinese cities, warm hostels, plentiful Westerners. I gave it my best shot, but the adventure was doomed. I’m under orders from the police not to go. I sleep.


I rise early and have delicious vegetable dumplings with Marijn. Talita is feeling under the weather, unfortunately, and is getting a few more hours of sleep. Over breakfast I tell Marijn about last night’s visit from the police. “So I guess I’ll be taking the bus back to Xichang with you guys,” I say. He gives me a long look. “You’re not going to just give up because of what the police say, are you?” I laugh and say, “No, I guess I’m not.” Though before he said that I certainly was planning to do so.

I buy provisions — spicy candied peanuts, barbecued tofu shrinkwrapped in plastic, two tubes of Oreos, and six dumplings from the shop we breakfasted at — and pack my bags. Marijn hires a van to take him and Talita on a sightseeing tour outside of Muli Town, and he offers to give me a lift in the direction I’m going. We drive up a sloppy mud road, past endless gangs building footings and retaining walls for the new road to Muli. Their countless backhoes and water diversions have left the existing road a royal mess. Partway up we stop to pee next to a sloping slab of rock that runs a few hundred feet above the road. Tibetans have carved prayers and graven images into the stone. Another half-hour on, the driver points out the road to Daocheng and we take a few pictures and then part ways.


Finally, finally I begin walking. It feels great. Then a few hours later, it feels crappy. I start walking near a ridgeline and spend the whole afternoon and into evening descending on a never-ending series of switchbacks and contour lines. What takes me seven hours of walking could have been accomplished in an effortless hour on a bike. My knees ache. Endless dump trucks, backhoes, and SUVs jammed with Chinese tourists pass me, and I choke on their dust.

At some point I stop for lunch and take stock. The dumplings, it turns out, are all filled with yak cheese. I manage to choke one down. I also figure out I’m not even following the road Google Maps thought I should take. I start to think I might be going towards Muli Monastery (Muli da si in Chinese). Later I muster the courage to stop a car and ask them if this road leads to the monastery. Indeed it does. My printed-out map becomes roughly useless.

Luckily, over dumplings that morning Marijn had asked the proprietor if he had a map of Muli County. He produced a Chinese tourism guide showing the spots of touristic interest. At the front of the guide was a little map. I didn’t see it as being useful, but Marijn encouraged me to snap a picture of it with my cell phone. It ends up being the map I use for the next week, until I’ve long since, unwittingly, left it.

That night I pitch my tent just before pure darkness falls. I find a side road up a creek and pitch my tent by a pile of old coals and garbage. I eat another stinky yak cheese dumpling and some peanuts for dinner. The stream is loud all night long, and I hallucinate in its rush the sounds of motorbikes and dump trucks coming to crush me. I have bad dreams, and even in the morning light the stream sounds angry and upset and maybe even evil.



I sleep late and tarry in striking camp. It’s nine thirty in the morning by the time I start walking down the road, my legs tender and stiff. I chew on the words I’ve worked out in my head to hitch my first ride: Ching dai wo. Please take me. I haven’t walked more than a hundred yards, though, when a beat-up jeep skids to a stop and waves at me to get in.

Inside are two rowdy Tibetan delivery boys coming back from a run into Muli. They ply me with cigarettes and the Chinese Redbull homage called Hi-Tiger. I love the different entendres in the name of this drink, and I actually think it tastes pretty good. We bounce down the road, blasting music. Their mix-tape is awesome. The version of “Mad World” from Donnie Darko, with the great lyric, “The dreams in which I’m dying / Are the best I’ve ever had.” Then some Shania Twain. Then the theme from Lord of the Rings but with a Chinese lady singing. It’s awesome but unfortunately over too soon. They leave me in front of a billiards hall at a muddy crossroads.

A crowd stares at me, like I’m a streaker at a football game. One man comes towards me, saying something over and over again and gesturing at the ground. I look around but don’t see anything, so I leave town quickly. It turns out the man was trying to tell me that the remaining three yak cheese dumplings had burst free from their thin plastic bag which I had strapped to the outside of my backpack. They had tumbled to the mud, never to be eaten by a human. And I was … relieved.

I walk a few hours up the road, passing a man skinning the bark off fallen pine trees with an axe. The houses in Muli County are often log cabin constructions of varying quality. The worst have great chinks in the walls while the nicest are covered over in a rough stucco. I also pass an old goatherd puffing away on a pipe that smelled suspiciously of marijuana. A few turns up the road and I find its source. Mixed in on a terrace of cornstalks are a dozen tall pot plants, heavily budding but unharvested. I decide I’m tired of hauling my dratted heavy bag with these incredibly sore legs, so I find a shady spot on the side of the road to relax and wait for a ride.

After a bit I see a black SUV zipping up the road towards me, and I hurriedly pack my stuff and go wave it down. The two Chinese men in it just wave as they pass me in a cloud of dust. A while later the bus to Muli Monastery comes and I get on it.

When the bus stops for lunch, I just stand around awkwardly smoking a cigarette. Eventually a Chinese girl comes up to me and asks if I want to have lunch with her. My policy on this trip is to say yes, whenever possible, so I go in to the little truckstop eatery and eat with Tsien lu and her Tibetan boyfriend, Jasi. She’s a terrorism student in Xichang while he works in administration in the county seat, Muli. We have a nice conversation about travel in Tibet, and they reveal that they too are going to Muli da si. Jasi’s uncle is a monk there.

When we finally get to the bottom of the monastery road, hours later, we three walk up it together. Jasi tells me that the ravine we’re coming up on is called “Buddha’s Gift,” a spring of fast-flowing, pure mountain water. There is a low-slung temple where the road passes the torrent of water. In front of it, Jasi burns an offering of juniper leaves. Their smoke is sweet and oily. We march around the smoky little fire three times, counter-clockwise, as Jasi and a monk chant. Then, having paid obeisance to the Buddha, we walk up the stream and clean our faces in its water. I drink a little, and it tastes pure.


Now, Jasi tells Tsien lu and me, we are ready to see the face of the Buddha. As we walk up the road to the monastery, Jasi notices a patch of rainbow floating in the eastern sky. This, he tells me, means the Buddha is very happy to receive me. The rainbow, more a spot really, stays a long time looking down on us.

At the monastery, Jasi asks one of the monks where I can camp. Apparently I can camp anywhere in the monastery grounds. I choose a spot by the first building to be rebuilt after the whole complex was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. It is somewhat private, and it has and incredible view of the valley below. Before I go to sleep I look a long time at the stars, visiting Cassiopeia, Orion, Libra, Scorpio, the Big Dipper. The Milky Way seems a vast field, and the hills softly glow in the starlight. I sleep well and dream not at all.