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.
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.”