Category Archives: Travel

The Biggest Losar: Solo Travels to Larung Gar

It was a fairly sudden decision to travel to Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Garze, Western Sichuan, for Chinese New Year, informed by the news there would be no tutoring for a week.

“What are you planning for Spring Festival?” I asked on a Tuesday over dinner at my student’s house.

“Actually, we’re going to Lhasa.”

Chopsticks fall dramatically in slow motion from hand to table.

“Oh, really,” I responded a little too enthusiastically, “that’s GREAT!”

The next day I bought a ticket to Maerkang, a town halfway in altitude between Chengdu and Seda. After queuing for half an hour in the pre-NY rush, the overworked lady behind the plexiglass window curtly informed me that tickets could only be bought three days in advance. This is how I bought a one way ticket to the mountains scheduled for 8:30am the day before New Year’s Eve.

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Part 1: Chengdu to Maerkang
第一章 成都到马尔康

Drinking whiskey with friends till the early hours and entering into a WeChat hóngbāo frenzy mean my memories of the bus mission have since congealed into a hungover melange of blurry contact-lenses and the oily residue of laoganma noodles.

Luggage and people spilled from the subway and into the bus station. Drivers recited northwestern destinations that I’d never heard of, shepherding homebound pilgrims into their vans for the Chunjie or Losar return. All aboard!

In typical Chinese transport style, the bus welcome was broadcast over the loudspeaker with a saxophonic Kenny G refrain. A group of girls with long, black linen aprons conversed in Tibetan as they squished onboard. A few unlucky people had ticket double-ups and were sent inside to ‘ask about it…’

The ticket lady switched to Putonghua to warn us about fake ticketing websites, though her audience was largely asleep.

Images of Buddha were cellotaped to next to the rearview mirror; prayer beads dangled in a loop below.

I sat behind an elderly woman wearing a headpiece of black folded fabric, ornately embroidered with a grid of colours – florescent yellow, shocking pink, bright red, orange and white with a singular flower in the centre – all masterfully secured with a long plait of hair. The Han woman on the window seat next to me wore a surgical facemask and clutched an enormous cellphone with a screensaver of what was presumably her own face.

Half an hour later, the other passengers returned in a flurry of Chengduhua and Tibetan. The ticket double ups were surprisingly sussed and we were finally ready to leave.

Much to the driver’s displeasure, the Chinese equivalent of Suzanne Paul boarded the bus. “Not now, we’re leaving,” he grunted, shunting the gear stick into submission. Ignoring him completely, Chinese Suzanne Paul proceeded to strut down the aisle with the assured confidence of a successful infomercial host, her headset microphone, waist-mounted amplifier and generously applied eye shadow bringing an abrupt display of glamour to the occasion.

She sold two facemasks and a pack of tissues.

I slept for almost the entire five and half hours, glimpsing snow cliffs out the window before my heavy eyelids were dragged shut by the anesthetizing effects of bus travel.

Part Two: Maerkang
第二章:马尔康

Pulling up in Maerkang, things were eerily still. As is the way with bus arrivals in small towns, the passengers quickly piled off and dissolved. I pressed my face to the cold, grey window of the bus station to find it was most definitely closed.

The ‘plan’ was to buy a ticket to Seda for the following morning and stay the night in Maerkang. But there were no buses. I walked to the road, hoping to avoid the vulture drivers until I’d thought of a valid alternative. The road was very quiet – a petrol station, a ramshackle hotel, a square of gravel repurposed into a car cemetery. A driver approaches. In this case, there was only one.

“Seda, Seda, Seda,” he muttered in my direction.

I engaged with a sigh: “…when you going then.”

“Tomorrow morning, 6am.”

“How much for a seat?” I asked, as if I had a plethora of other options available.

“Depends on how full we get. At this rate, over 400 per seat.”

Dammit. He has the monopoly and knows it. 400RMB is upwards of $90NZD, a.k.a. hell no.

I eked a“waaaaa sai” and endured the expected sales spiel about how everyone else is on holiday and the bus station is closed. I took his number and walked off.

A monk draped in blood-red robes asked me in crystal clear Putonghua where I was going. He was standing with a frail Tibetan woman who had white pigtail plaits on either side of her head and an envious fluffy robe. Somewhere. “Zhuokeji.”

A taxi driver pulled over. He was keen to chat as we swerved through the valley. Prayer beads dangled from his rearview mirror. He asked if I believe in Buddha.

Part 3: Zhuokeji
第三章:卓克基

Zhuokeji is a small village on the river about 8km out of Maerkang, inhabited by the Jiarong Tibetans 嘉绒藏族. The older women all wear black folded headpieces with different patterns embroidered on the back, same as the woman on the bus from Chengdu. Zhuokeji is dead quiet during the off-season.

Prayer flags were staked into a distant hill. Parts of the river had frozen solid. A woman who spotted me sitting idly on the wooden overbridge extended a “tashi delek!” with the raising of her hand.

There was something of a Nordic feel to this tiny Tibetan village in the mountains of northwest Sichuan. Stone and quietude.

White paint lined the eyelids of windows, while rooftops and balconies fluttered with trimmings of prayer flags. Piles of chopped firewood were tucked into their winter beds with sheets of tarpaulin. Doors to homes and restaurants were resoundingly closed. A family watched me from their balcony as I ascended the winding paths, yet no one said a word.

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The Jiarong Brew House appeared to be semi-operational as the gate flung open with a clatter of loose chains. An old woman shuffled out with a wicker basket on her back, eyeballing me with caution. Why was I alone on the eve of New Year’s Eve, she queried, and why here? Questions I was becoming more and more uncertain of myself. As she tottered off for the hills, I saw her basket was full of rubbish and wondered if she were collecting or dumping.

Smoke billowed from one or two chimneys on the hill; I could feel the valley of homes watching me as I sat to rest on a plank. We were all privately puzzled as to what I was doing there. Water rushed noisily downstream, surging across snagged, scum-green duvets and ice-coated rocks. Two girls pounded their mops into the riverbed.

An old woman sat next to the bridge by the river, peeling cloves of garlic into a shallow basket woven into the shape of a petal. A fat man with a walking stick sat opposite her on the backseat of a car, breathing heavily through his mouth like a beached manatee.

“No accommodation 没有住宿,” Garlic Lady said in my direction, barely looking up from her basket. I walked over to form a three. She resumed her audience.

“No heating 没有暖气,” she added, “very cold 好冷.”

“…oh, really 哦是这样” I thought aloud.

“Ayeeeee,” she confirmed, continuing to shell her garlics with deft thumbs and a little boredom.

Suddenly, the lady from the Brew House was heard toddling across the bridge, carrying herself with the stability of a giraffe in heels. She plonked herself down on the carseat sofa and heaved a heavy ‘aiya,’ before producing a half-empty bottle of Erguotou from the inner fold of her dark robes, setting it down with a thud upon a table which had recently materialised at her side. Manatee jerked into life with a splutter; a rush of Tibetan began to flow around the brazier, which crackled in the mountain air

Ding de hen!” Brew House exclaimed, gesturing towards the baijiu, which I interpreted as “I’m a bit pissed!” Needless to say, Brew House had been on the home brew.

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In the narrow alley of steps and brightly painted doorways, a little girl was struggling with something.

“Ayi, help me! 阿姨帮我!” she whimpered, her arms struggling to hold a dislodged rock into the crumbling wall. I help a sister out.

“Thanks! 谢谢!” she chirped with relief, dusting her hands on her jacket. “Sis, you know of any home-stays around here? 妹妹 这里有没有住宿?” I asked before she skipped away. “These are all home-stays! 这些都是住宿啊!” she replied, whirling her arm in the air, “just knock and ask! 敲门问一下!”

I push through a saloon-style swing gate and climb a steep wooden ladder within. “Anybody home? 有人吗?” A tiny Jiarong woman with an amazing set of bright white teeth floats onto the balcony to greet me. I ask if she has a bed for the night.

“You’re by yourself? 你一个人吗?” she asked and smiled, her little face framed by plaits and black embroidered fabric.

“Yep.”

“HO!” she cackles, “I’ll ask.”

For one week each year, the beds of Zhuokeji are reserved for returning family. I thanked her and continued on.

The exterior walls of a house on upper ridge were painted with white crescents. My knock on the red steel door made an unintentionally aggressive clang throughout the house – triggering the emergence of its singular occupant. Her hair was long, loose and unruly, unlike the neat headpieces of the other Jiarong women.

She shouted something akin to “WHADDAYAWANT?!” from the balcony. The other houses held families, yet she was on her own. I was spooked, suspecting she might be the village loon, a crazy Cathy jilted by a Jiarong Heathcliff. Footsteps scuttled downstairs.

Crazy Cathy promptly appeared at the front door.

“Come in,” she said, running a towel over her head and immediately assuming a state of normality, “sorry, I’ve just washed my hair.” I half crack-up to myself for thinking she was mad.

The house was sparsely furnished with wooden furniture and woven fabrics. I received the village low down: no buses tomorrow, no drivers to Seda over New Years and absolutely no way I’d make that van to Seda tomorrow morning at 6am if I stayed in Zhuokeji tonight, though she does have room available. Also, no way should a seat to Seda cost 400 kuai.

“I really haven’t planned this well, have I?” She agreed with a sigh. She said there was a bus back to Maerkang at 5pm and that it would be wiser to stay there tonight. I thanked her and set off again.

A large mural of Mao Zedong on the Long March is plastered across the face of the very inactive tourist centre. The hills are dappled with white snow and skeletal trees. A storekeeper called me lihai for travelling alone, but couldn’t be sure about the bus schedule. Several sleek, expensive cars drove in and out of the village.

The storekeeper set fire to a pile of cardboard boxes. With the sun’s slow, crawling departure came a finger-numbing, bitter cold. It’d been 40 minutes of no buses or taxis.

I drew on a line by Osho, which had become my mantra for the trip:

“只要先有勇气,其它一切会发生”
First comes courage, then everything will happen.

I was picked up as soon as my I put my thumb out.

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Part 4: Back to Maerkang
第四章:回马尔康去

“Maerkang?”

“Hop in.”

He was a fairly ordinary middle-aged man who drove a fairly ordinary middle-aged car. His family were following behind us, a couple and their young daughter.

I told him I was planning to stay in Maerkang and find a way to Seda the next day, most likely with that expensive driver from the station.

“We are from Seda 我们是色达人,” he said, “we’ll be driving out tomorrow morning, you can come with us.”

Shit, really?! What luck!

Then the ultimatum.

“Are you going to Seda because you believe Buddha or just going to have a look?” he enquired, his spectacled eyes firmly on the road.

Blue pill, red pill. One of these answers might leave me at a petrol station out of Maerkang. Thankfully, an acceptable response was reached by saying I have an interest in Buddhism, but have only been reading in English. I left out the part about being a blogger.

“I want to go and understand a bit more 我想去了解一下,” I offered, attempting to defuse any possibility of being quizzed on the key tenets of Buddhism in Chinese.

“You won’t understand anything after a few days 你带了几天什么都不能了解,” he responded bluntly. “No, of course not,” I deflected. Silence. I asked how much it would cost to go to Seda in his car.

“I won’t accept money, we all believe in Buddha.”

Holla Buddha, love your compassion.

We continued into a river township, much more established than the bus station area which I’d assumed was Maerkang in its entirety, arriving in an underground carpark. Their usual hotel was closed, so we walked about looking for a place that would accept credit card. The early evening street corners were bustling with snack carts and fruit vendors, while people in animal skin cloaks, fur hats, embroidered aprons and red monk robes slowly floated around.

I thought it wise to stay on my own at a cheaper hotel on the corner. “Ok,” Mister said, “We’ll leave at 8:30am sharp, meet at the carpark tomorrow morning.” The couple were polite but removed, their little girl was super cute and wore a bindi on her forehead.

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Evening in Maerkang on the eve of New Year’s Eve.

“My English isn’t good,” the receptionist lamented, flicking through my passport as if it were an unknown alien artefact. “you can fill in your own details on the computer.”

“Uhh… okay,” I said, squashing my backpacked body behind the counter before realising the only language required for the task was Chinese. The receptionist sat back and warmed her hands over the brazier, gleefully relieved of her duties. Her holidays had begun.

By nightfall, the temperature had plummeted beyond cold. I read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche beneath the yellowing bed sheets with the electric blanket on high.

“The past is past, the future not yet risen, and even the present thought, as we experience it, becomes the past.

The only thing we really have is nowness, is now.”

Chapter 2: Impermanence

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Part 5: Maerkang to Seda
第五章:马尔康到色达

The supermarket team clapped their hands in unison outside the SPAR, before Chinese New Year nursery rhymes pierced the stillness of Maerkang’s 8:30am morning air. Mister and the family were late. I eventually received a call to a bowl of rice noodles. Mister smoked two cigarettes with his brother. Mama fished some noodles in a rice bowl for bubs, who scoffed them down with chopsticks five times the length of her hand.

“Eat up,” Mama said to bubs, “we’ve gotta get home and fold some chāoshǒu for the New Year.”

“Zǒu le 走了” (“Let’s go.”)

Anquan dai 安全带” (“Seatbelt.”)

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It was a good thirty minutes before Mister broke the silence with an unexpected opener: “New Zealand has really big cows.”

He had studied xùmùyè 畜牧业 animal husbandry with a focus on New Zealand farming practices. I rambled my way through a counterpoint in Chinese, where I wanted to say “yes, however the mechanisation of New Zealand’s dairy farming practices have led to the pollution of water ways and increased carbon emissions,” but ended up with something more like “lots of cow poo-poo makes river dirty.” He manages urban construction projects now.

The skies were azure as we rolled through the mountains. Enormous prayer flags hung from the hills, jīngfān 经幡, the wind recites the words of each mantra. Mister discussed Mao’s Long March and it’s historical relevance to the frozen river beneath the road. I followed for a while before falling asleep and drooling on myself.

We stopped for a lunch break. Mister’s brother ran down to the frozen river and threw rocks at it. I was endeared by his relationship with the mountain environment at each stop, in nature he took on the airs of a child. He called for bubs to join him and she soon scuttled down the muddy bank into his arms with glee. Mama gave me two vials of herbal altitude medicine.

A baby yak furtively moved from the river grazing patch towards our car side lunch of packaged crackers and cakes, fruit and chicken. Bubs was scared and began to wail. Her mother told her yaks were friendly and her father taught her how to feed it banana skins.

The waterfalls along the road had frozen and formed jagged, glassy icicles framed by prayer flags and blue sky. Mister stopped the car for us to take photos several times. The frozen water formations were incredible, capturing liquid movement in time. Mister said Seda only has 50% as much as oxygen as Chengdu and that lately it has been dropping below -20 degrees. He lit another cigarette.

We’d driven 100km of bad road, but it was nowhere near as bad as some of the others in Sichuan (Kangding to Litang, Chengdu to Sigunuangshan, Litang to Daocheng, et al), it was just unsealed but not rocky or warped by enormous earthquakes. Construction workers had gone home for the holiday break, large rocks at the mouthes of mountain tunnels punctuated the pause.

Once the bad road was over, Mister, relieved, began speeding around blind corners with the same kind of reckless confidence as a local driving from Auckland to Piha.

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The sun was hot through the car windows. I was thirsty. “We’ll soon arrive at your destination 我们快到你的目的地,” Mister said. He told me they would be driving back to Chengdu in eight days, and to call him if I hadn’t found a way back by then. I ghost dialled him to give him my number and finally asked his name.

“中国的中,爽快的爽。” Zhongshuang, which coincidentally includes my favourite character, shuǎng 爽, which means bright, clear, open, frank, pleasurable or more colloquially, just mean.

“We’ll be heading over the bridge to Seda Town, so I will drop you at the fork here,” he said, slowing the car to a halt. “See the white pagodas over there?” he pointed into the distance, “walk up there, the school is in the valley, it’s about 7km.”

He gave me a bottle of energy water and insisted I take a pack of individually wrapped banana cakes. I thanked him for everything, waved to the family and watched the convoy drive across the river and over the hill. I was so lucky to encounter these great people.

Alone again.

Part 6: Arriving at Larung Gar Buddhist Academy
第6章:到喇荣五明佛学院
བླ་རུང་ལྔ་རིག་ནང་བསྟན་སློབ་གླིང་།

At 4200m above sea level, Seda sunshine is on par with New Zealand’s frypan rays. The road towards the valley was rocky, lined with piles of rubble and half-torn down buildings. A slow trickle of Tibetan people walked in the opposite direction, giving me a curious glare. The mouth of the valley was populated by a few yaks, stray dogs and local people cloaked in fabrics, all congregating around a dilapidated row of stores.

As I walked up between the pagodas flanking the entrance to the settlement, a bright eyed girl in a green robe sidled up next to me with her nun gugu and little brother. Her name was Geriwengmu. She asked if we could be friends.

“Of course!” I replied, before she set about adding my number on her aunty’s iPhone, the only brand that can type in Tibetan.

“Will this be your phone number forever?” she asked with a kind of untainted innocence usually only preserved in small children.

“Yes. Forever.”

Geriwengmu was from a village further west of Seda and was staying in her aunty’s hut while studying at Larung Gar. She’d never been to Chengdu. I stupidly asked her what she was up to today.

“Uhh… well I’ll be studying Buddhism.”

Suddenly we came face to face with the wall of clustered red wooden log huts, all hand-built, flat topped and chimneyed. I gasped. “Isn’t it beautiful?” We took a photo together and waved goodbye as she navigated her way back to her aunty’s house, a feat that looks harder than finding your tent at Reading Festival.

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The road curled up through the valley and the huts became smaller and denser as I moved closer to the core. I didn’t know how far the road went, where I was going or when I would ‘arrive,’ so I just kept walking. After a while, everyone was either a nun or a monk.

When people come to study at Larung Gar, they dedicate their lives to the pursuit of enlightenment. Some of them have been there since they were very young, some of them have come from other parts of China, some of them came and never left. Their everyday lives are stripped back to the bare basics – a lot of carrying and lugging of food, water, fuel using blankets tied around the back. Everyone cloaked their shaved heads from the sun. No one said tashi delek.

I felt like an alien sightseer from the material world of conveniences, cheeseburgers, en suite bathrooms, VPNs, online shopping and takeout coffee – clinging to my possessions, a physical and spiritual outsider.

“Our myopic focus on this life, and this life only, is the great deception, the source of the modern world’s bleak and destructive materialism.”

Chapter 2: Impermanence

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The sun was still beaming, but I knew the valley would freeze as soon as it dropped behind the hills. Doors were closed and people appeared to be busily pottering about with their own work. I needed to find somewhere to stay. I’d heard you could stay at the nunnery but so far nothing indicated where that might be. Red huts stretched out as far as the eye could see, layers and layers of them separated by narrow dirt paths and wandering figures draped in red cloaks.

A small, colourful corridor of golden prayer wheels contained a wrinkled woman with grey plaits and navy robes, who looked so much part of the furniture that it was unclear if she’d left her post in the past 20 years. I sat to rest with a trio of ascending nuns. They greeted me and I offered them mandarins. In a synchronised movement, the three of them instinctively declined by raising a palm to the sky, rolling beads with the other.

“You eat,” they said. “Excuse me, where is the school?” I asked. Hands pointed upwards, “another kilometre.”

The huts along the road had become tidier and more condensed than the settlements down the valley. The Buddhist village version of the ‘city centre.’ I passed dozens of monks queuing for their dinner and nuns washing clothes outside their huts in buckets of cold water.

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When I finally arrived at the nunnery, a spread of nuns were sitting in the sun on the carpeted front porch, their crimson fleecy robes draped over their heads. It was a large, beautiful temple painted with bright colours and Buddhist imagery. The echoing drone of nuns chanting within the temple underscored the sunsetting beyond the hills. As I plonked myself down and took it all in, I knew I’d reached a very special place.

Shoes were removed marae-style at the front steps. Judging on how people would scan before leaving, shoes are likely repossessed marae-style, too. No one cares for material possessions, after all.

Hungry and needing somewhere to stay, I thought I’d enter the temple and ask. Pushing aside the heavy curtain, I found over a hundred chanting nuns seated on the ground chanting mantra, reading scriptures and staring at me. Too awkward to sit, stand or watch, I slowly backed out the way I came.

Back on the porch, two nuns were vigorously shovelling rice into their mouths, kneeling over their takeaway containers as if prostrating towards the sun. As the culinary options of a remote Buddhist settlement were unlikely to be abundant, I scanned the borders of the square for their source.

Through the window of a nearby hole in the wall, a stocky woman in an apron toddled between a vat of tomatoes and the exchange of small bank notes. Her young daughter swept the small kitchen despite the constant infiltration of hungry nuns.

“Another one of those,” I said awkwardly in Putonghua, wishing I could speak Tibetan like everyone else. “Five kuai.”

Tomato and egg and shredded potato on rice. A lone nun asked if I liked the food. She said the nunnery accommodation would be open again tomorrow.

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The Larung Gar Hotel is located on the upper ridge of the valley, meaning a heinous number of stairs must be climbed before reaching it. A nun in a crimson head cap manned the front desk. I took the cheapest option, 45RMB for a four bed dorm. A girl was already asleep in the bed next to mine. Altitude sickness.

Later that night, the other beds were occupied by a pair of nuns. They were trying to use the landline to call someone, before approaching me with hand gestures to use my phone. Speech always sounds louder when you can’t understand it. Several phone calls later, they returned my phone and tried to give me 10 kuai. In the Seda spirit of refusing things, I refused. They thanked me and chat loudly throughout the night, before going to sleep with a spoken mantra on a pocket radio.

I woke to shut the lights around midnight and discovered their beds had transfigured into two crimson-covered mole hills.

Part 7: Life at Larung Gar
7章: 喇荣五明佛学院的生活

The nuns began chanting at half six. Throat clearing, creaky doors and smatterings of Tibetan echoed down the hallway.

Breakfast was pot noodles and a flask of tea. I sat on the ledge of my dorm window, which opened out onto a rooftop overlooking the endless expanse of wooden huts. White smoke billowed up from the village braziers and formed a discernible layer of mist over the valley, hovering like a smoky cloud in a freshly hot-boxed car.

You know you are at 4000m altitude when your crackers have blown up like puffer fish and the ball from your roll-on deodorant has cannonballed across the room. I considered staying at the nunnery, but not wanting to give up the kettle and electric blanket at the hotel, I booked another night.

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Larung Gar is the largest Buddhist settlement in the world, home to an estimated 40000 monks and nuns. The ubiquitous sea of red wooden huts has grown enormously since the school was founded in 1980, hand-built by monks, nuns and their families to provide basic shelter for the duration of their studies.

The village settlement was equipped with a few fruit and vegetable stalls, Buddhist bookstores, retailers of robes, candles, pillows, blankets, packaged snacks and drinks, even modern amenities such as an ATM and a China Mobile. Van drivers would yell to prospective passengers out the window, mostly heading into Seda Town.

Sitting in the sun on the Nunnery Porch for hours at a time gave me a view into a world so far removed from my own life experience – everyone was moving, praying, coming and going within a codified set of practices that were understood by everyone but me. I sat as unobtrusively as possible, observing this community of crimson orbs living an existence both in sync and indifferent to the notion of time.

Miscellaneous toddlers wrapped in orange and crimson tried to keep pace with the ascending nuns, who had been migrating around like a crimson colony of spirits for the past unknown stretch of time. Plastic buckets and a few pails of earth-coloured stew were brought up on either end of a bamboo pole.

Nuns would scuff their shoes on as quickly as they removed them, entering and exiting the temple with the comfortable ease of lounge slippers. The valley was home. That porch was its own kind of sacred mountain, a higher space, an all seeing platform heightened by the tile steps that italicised it in a rhomboid.

The passing of time was now taken in accordance with the movement of the sun as it illuminated the sea of huts in slow and steady increments.

A cluster of beings materialised before me in a flurry of activity that could be described as neither sudden nor gradual. A nun with a knife began hacking at what appeared to be yak butter for distribution into several dozen containers. I brought out my camera and took a photo. The hacking nun looked at me with a look of disapproval, paired with the tranquility of a Sphinx. Time to leave.

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I climbed the valley trails until I reached a quiet, spacious area of huts, each with well-crafted wood panels, windows and a neat fenced garden area – the Larung Gar equivalent of Wadestown. Monks gave me the eye as I sat panting on the grass, the way they looked at me made me unsure if it was okay to be there.

“To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” -Montaigne

Chapter 2: Impermanence

Not far from the top of the ridge, I made a slow beeline for the border where green grass met azure sky, feeling a compulsion to see what lay beyond the hills…

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The only thing more terrifying than being chased by a wild Tibetan dog is being chased by four wild Tibetan dogs.

Teeth gnashing, barking and saliva, oh heeell no. Knowing the monks would not emerge to help, I boosted as fast as I could without running, my heart racing as I contemplated my inevitable mauling, blood loss and rabies infection. Everything I’d read about welcoming death as the next phase of life ceased to register – dogs can smell fear, and I absolutely reeked of it.

They fell back as I reached the frozen river, but their barking had set off others on the opposite side of the valley, as if alerting their chums of the fresh meat coming their way.

The frozen river snaked through the huts and over towards the grasslands, trapping wire fences in its jaws.

That night I walked around the gompa several times before retiring to bed at 7pm, exhausted. The girl next to me still claimed to have altitude sickness and now her boyfriend was tending to her every whimpering need. Through them, I managed to get a number for a guy that was carpooling back to Chengdu the day after next.

Part 8: Losar
第8章:洛萨

I woke on Losar morning to find everything dusted in beautiful white snow. Mantras had been echoing over the loudspeakers throughout the valley since the early hours. With each speaker playing a fraction after each other, the unified chanting track created a reverb effect that bounced through the whole settlement.

“That which protects the mind from negativity, or that which protects you from your own mind, is called mantra.”

Chapter 5: Bringing the Mind Home

snow morning

Next door to the hotel was a small hut that sold breakfast – rice porridge, buns and boiled eggs. The operation was run by two Tibetan women with long plaits and tough hands. “Is there any special event for Losar today? 今天有没有过年的活动?”  I asked, pouring vinegar into my porridge, “No event… 没有什么活动…” a cleaner from the hotel replied with a sigh. If I was looking for a party atmosphere for Tibetan New Year, a Buddhist teaching academy was probably not the right place to come.

I climbed to a spot on the hill with an optimal view of the settlement. As the sun cast throughout the valley, the snow began to melt from the rooftops. Impermanence. Several Tibetan families walked by and greeted me with a “tashi delek!”

That afternoon, I met a dude called Yuan Xian outside the monastery. He was a chubby fellow dressed in tracksuit pants and an outdoor jacket. Yuan Xian had come to Larung Gar three years ago from his hometown of Chongqing with the intention of staying a few months. He never left.

He began talking to me about life and death, karma and a range of other stuff I had no way of understanding. He said he wanted to give me a book to further my understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, so we walked in the direction of his hut. “You wait here, you cannot enter this area, it is just for men.” Little did he know, I had stumbled through that area escaping wild dogs the previous day.

When Yuan Xian returned, he gave me an intense book in traditional Chinese on the key tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition, he gave me a small ziplock bag containing several tiny specks of red and blue.

“These are shèlì 舍利,” he said, “I wasn’t sure about giving them to you because you might not appreciate their value, but then I decided this meeting was fate, and that you should have them.”

“Wow, thank you.” While I felt humbled that he wanted to give me something so deeply important to him, I promptly confirmed his initial supposition by looking up what on earth shèlì is on Pleco:

舍利 shèlìrelics left after the cremation of Buddhas or saintly monks (deposited in stupas for worship.)
1. ashes after cremation
2. Buddhist relics

“Keep them close to your heart at all times,” he said with a smile, “they will give you peace and protection.”

We walked up to the gompa and he eagerly talked about Buddhism. He could discuss this forever, he was very devout and earnestly wanted to share his knowledge with me. A lot of what he said went way over my head, but I got some of it when he broke it down to the basics-past life 前生, the present 现在 and the future 未. Everything we do in this life will affect the next, 因果, so we ought to do more good deeds, no matter how big or small.

He took me to some small houses of worship with Buddha statues and a nun in each, then taught me how to full-body kowtow 磕头 in the Tibetan way: there are three prayer positions for the hands – the first above the head, the second at the throat and the third at the chest, representing the body 身体, language 语言 and heart 心respectively. Then the body is stretched out face down on the ground, arms outstretched, and the whole process repeated three times. Once we had completed the kowtow, we walked around the Buddha three times clockwise.

We walked over to the next shrine room on the hill, which was dedicated to Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, the lama who founded the school in 1980. Yuan Xian said Khenpo’s niece is now the leader, but due to poor health, she rests in Chengdu for the winter and comes back in the warmer months.

Up on the higher plains, we walked around another gompa and put our heads to the stone. “Do you feel something?” he asked.

“Whenever we act negatively, it leads to pain and suffering; whenever we act positively, it eventually results in happiness.”

Chapter 6: Evolution, Karma and Rebirth

kiwese view

The nuns would freely relieve themselves in public. The snow had made the trails between the huts incredibly slippery – I was gripping onto wooden fences and stakes in the ground while slip sliding on the ice, before realising a stream of flowing water in my path was actually a nun pissing. Yaks trod about eating trash from the dirty brick depository zones and stray dogs scamper around for scraps.

On my last evening on the porch, dozens of nuns had huddled around like penguins in a circular formation, chanting a mantra to the clanging of a small gong, speed gradually increasing. For those at Larung Gar, prayer is not like church service where everyone sings when told to, rather it exists within everyday life. People are always praying in some form, so participation in group chants or mantras is fluid. Like clockwork, everyone knew when the mantra was over and scuffed their shoes back on to go home.

I met with Mr. Carpool next door to the hotel, where some elderly Tibetan people were sitting atop cardboard boxes and drinking yak butter tea from a large thermos. “We leave at 5am.”

Life for everyone in Seda is free of material wealth and the gluttony of the modern world. Our next lives are more important.

Part 9: Back to Chengdu
第9章:回成都去

Five in the morning was pitch black and freezing, as a fresh layer of snow coated the valley. I walked down to meet Mr. Carpool at the giant golden prayer wheel as planned, passing a woman sweeping the snow from the front of her hut with a small brush. Mr. Carpool was pulling the prayer wheel round and round, so I joined him for a bit to stay warm and reflect on what I’d learned.

It was a full car – a Tibetan chick in the front, a nun, a monk, Mr. Carpool and a man from Hubei who later revealed he had come to pray for his ailing mother. As the youngest, I was squashed into the middle of the middle row by the nun. As we were finally about to leave, she asked the driver to pull over so she could get something from another hut, then set about banging on their door at half past five in the morning.

As the sun slowly began to rise, the light revealed pairs of Buddhists kowtowing their way along the side of the gravel road to the monastery, praying and prostrating themselves to the ground with every step. Some had gloves, some did not. None wore masks.

I slept for most of the way back. I was the odd one out in the van, I have an interest in learning about Buddhism and applying its values to my own life, but primarily in their eyes, I was a tourist.

When people compliment someone for being a ‘good driver’ in China, it usually means they drive at a maniacal, timely speed without killing anyone. We all agreed he was a good driver. The shorter the time I had to be lectured by this uptight nun from Heilongjiang the better.

For some reason, the driver would always stop roadside instead of at a village for toilet breaks. As soon as the van came to a halt, the doors flew open and everyone scuttled out into the shrubs to pee.

“Do I remember at every moment that I am dying, and everyone and everything else is, and so treat all beings at all times with compassion?”

Chapter 2: Impermanence

carback

Part 10: Chengdu
第10章:到成都

The first thing I noticed about Wuhouci when we arrived back in the city was that it was crawling with armed police and military vehicles. There had been no 3G or wifi access in Seda over New Year’s, VPNs were down nationwide and it seems the Tibetan Quarter was on lockdown, too.

The city felt strange and the noise was acute. The Tibetan girl who had not said a word the entire ride slipped into the crowds and disappeared. Mr. Carpool added my WeChat and said we should drink tea together sometime. As incredible as Seda was, I was glad to be back – I missed my friends, I missed my bed, I missed my shower.

Back in the world of material wealth, a girl outside my gate showed off her new cellphone to a friend, admiring the screen size with what seemed like genuine satisfaction. ♦

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Chinese New Year (Chunjyeah!)

Ayi Wan Lin phoned on the weekend. Forgot to reply to that text, flicked it away for later consideration while the eternal online shopping hole of Taobao was draining my essence.

Chunjie seems to creep in just as you’ve been blobbing into the festive glow of Christmas, New Year’s and a self-administered hangover period. It’s chill. Then you realise that laowai holidays didn’t mean shit to anyone and that early February is where the lunar end of the year is at – so you’d better stock your fridge before all the restaurants close. Except for the fam at Lanzhou Lamian. They do not give a fuck.

Red lanterns adorn doorways and trees. WeChat release several new sets of cartoon greeting stickers, the 21st century China version of a Hallmark card. When are you gonna fangjia, how long are you gonna fangjia and are you gonna huijia have ripened into standard seasonal chat. A nice change from air pollution.

In line with traditional Chinese customs, my flat is observing the New Year by completely ignoring the red sticker stuck above the front door by our previous tenant ancestors and buying a discount bottle of Bailey’s.

Xiao Mei!” she exclaimed, with what must have been a smile.

No one has called me that name since the Pearl River Delta whanau about this time last year. I respond with an approximation of “hello, what’s up (oh shit what title do I call you again)… aunty!”

The conversation shifts to weather, as chat with relatives so easily does. She told me it had snowed in Guangzhou, which for their usual climate is totally insane. Around the same time, sleet was falling in Chengdu for the first time in years, though everyone wished they were snowflakes.

Sounds of the shoe market clattered down the phone. I remember Wan Lin didn’t make it for the big(gest) feed at Kan Bong’s last year, due to work. Shoe sales are busy, as parents and children grab new their knock-offs for the New Year.

“Are you coming for New Year’s?” “你今年会过来过年吗?”

GUANGZHOU TRAIN STATION, 2 FEB 2016

Sorry, think I’ll pass.

 

新年快乐!
Kung Hei Fat Choi!
Happy New Year!

Year of the Mm-Mm-Monkey!*

Chinese New Year: Monday 8 February 2016

*(have been singing phonetics with a toddler for the past two weeks, will never look at the words apple, igloo, or monkey the same ever again.)

Premature New Year’s greetings from Kiwese, as I won’t be near the internet next week. Tibetan New Year (Losar) is on the same day. Packing my bags, stay tuned…

 

Hanzu in a Headscarf: Travels in Xinjiang

Xinjiang شىنجاڭ‎‎ 新疆 is a mountainous, oil-rich region that forms the bulbous bump of northwest China. Bordering Tibet to the south, Mongolia to the east, Russia to the north, with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the west, Xinjiang (lit. new frontier) has long been a vital trading hub and cultural melting pot at the heart of the Central Asian Silk Road.

Buddhism came and went; Islam came and stayed. Eurasian peoples have migrated around the region’s basins and deserts for centuries. It has been ruled by powers spanning the Mongol Empire, the Ming Dynasty, the Soviets, a blink as the Eastern Turkestan Republic, and since the 1949, the People’s Republic of China.

The Uighur ئۇيغۇر 维族 (Wéizú) are the Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim, Central Asian ethnic majority of Xinjiang. However, it appears the Government are working towards diluting the Uighur majority by bringing more and more Han Chinese  汉族 (Hànzú) to the region and imposing restrictions on traditional Uighur culture, alongside efforts to  ‘现代化’ (modernise) the area in line with the rest of the country.

As one can imagine, gnarly shit has gone down.

With this backdrop in mind, I covered my head with a scarf and tried with as much Uighur language as I could during our trip through the largest province in China, and perhaps even the most captivating place I’ve visited to date. 

(All photos by Kiwese, unless stated otherwise.)

Jamming with the homies at a vegetable market in Kuche. Photo credit: Ben Allnatt.
Jamming with the homies on a traditional Uighur three-stringed lute at a streetside vegetable market in Kuche. Photo credit: Ben Allnatt.

“What are you doing here?” he asked with an authoritative bark of Putonghua. His AK-47 wielding comrade stood by, surveying the local bazaar as three-wheeled motor carts spluttered past with fresh kill goat carcasses piled high on the back. I’d blatantly taken a photo of the armoured tank trucking through Kuche’s Old Town 老城.

“We are just travelling,” I replied sheepishly, lowering my head which was meekly covered by a blue and gold pashmina.

“Delete those photographs.” I complied with a machine gun Mandarin stutter of “sorrysorrysorry.”

Shenfenzheng 身份证,” he commanded, the trisyllabic staccato that has conditioned locals into producing their ID cards with the swiftness of a cat’s paw.

“I’m a foreigner,” I conceded, as he took the black New Zealand passport from my sweaty palms, fearing for a moment that he might be able to feel my racing heartbeat through the paper like osmosis.

Perplexed for a second, taking in a Han face, a foreign passport, a DSLR camera and a headscarf, he asked again, this time with a sense of curiosity intermingled with duty, “what are you doing here?

One photo survived. A regular morning in Kuche Old Town. Image by Kiwese.
One photo survived. A regular morning in Kuche Old Town.

Western reports on events in Xinjiang almost religiously include the phrase ‘ethnic tensions,’ while Chinese state media tend to opt for the more jihadi militant-packed signifier ‘暴力恐怖分子‘ (terrorist), a loanword for Islamic extremism inspired by the U.S. response to 9/11. While variations on the word ‘terror’ including ‘反恐英雄‘ (counter-terrorist hero) and ‘恐怖训练营‘ (terrorist training camps) have been adopted by the likes of Xinhua and Sina, their usage has been quarantined to inverted commas in Anglophone news reports, in a Dr. Evil style rumination on laser weapons.

Professor James A. Millward, author of the extensive touchstone text Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, has suggested in an essay for the L.A. Review of Books that the recent Government crackdown on the defining characteristics of Uighur culture are the real reasons behind unrest in Xinjiang and the spate of attacks on innocent civilians, as opposed to a militant Islamic threat.

Needless to say, foreign reportage on Xinjiang is almost exclusively about ethnic tensions between the Uighur and Han. State media reports of Han death tolls and denouncements of Islamic (read: Uighur) separatists has created a fear-inducing, anti-Islamic mindset among the Han, many of whom receive their news through state media enclosed within the Great Firewall of China and hold a resolute distrust of the Uighur. Indeed, when my cellphone was stolen in Chengdu last year, nearby witnesses were quick to inform me that it was a ‘Xinjiang man’ on a motorbike.

In July 2009, violent riots in the Han-gentrified provincial capital of Urumqi ئۈرۈمچى شەھىرى 乌鲁木齐 led to over a hundred (Han) deaths, a temporary internet lockdown in Xinjiang and the penultimate nationwide blockage of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The car explosion at Tiananmen Square and the knife attack at Kunming Railway Station back in 2013 have both been attributed to Xinjiang extremists. On the other hand, foreign media are often quick to hum the tune of the Chinese Government heavy hand— the words to the song we all know.

Anyone who has taken the most elementary class in Media Studies will know, the way in which the media report an event will influence the way we perceive it. With regard to ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, I think it’s safe to say that people’s perceptions have indeed been influenced.

Rough translation: "Look to modern culture to lead the way." Near the Kuche old town 老城, just nearby a Uighur dude passed out in his own vomit on the footpath. Image Kiwese.
“Use modern culture as a guide.” Propaganda billboard in Kuche’s Old Town, 老城, just up the road from where a local man was passed out in his own vomit .

Click smaller images to enlarge

After a ten-hour overnight train ride in the shàngpù 上铺 out of Liuyuan near Dunhuang, the ancient Buddhist cave site and last major stop in Gansu, my long-time Welly bro Ben and I were welcomed to Turpan تۇرپان‎ 吐鲁番 with open arms— full-body, boob-patting, nutsack-tapping frisk downs by gender-assigned security guards. Hellooo, Xinjiang!

From the train station to Turpan City, we experienced the hassles with security that local people have to deal with on a daily basis, with at least three ID checks during the one-hour bus ride into town. The Chinese flag flew atop all kinds of structures, even a rickety old shack with a teetering awning constructed entirely of old car parts.

Beneath the colourful fabric sunshades of a Turpan food market was all sorts of boiling, baking and frying going on in steel pots over roaring, open flames. Samsa pastries filled with salty, tender beef. Fresh apple juice. Wonton soup and tea. “WHISKEY!” claimed one witty juice vendor, pouring me a cup and thrusting it into my clammy hands for the criminally low price of 1 kuai. Most snacks and beverages in Xinjiang linger around the 1-2-3 kuai mark!

“How do you say ‘thank you‘ in your language?” I asked the owner of the wonton stall, who was tending to an enormous mound of spring onions with a cleaver. “Raqmed!” she replied with a warm smile.

A nearby woman soon butted in with something along the lines of: “Raqmed! Raqmed! Take my photo! And then take hers!”

Wonton stall crew check out the local news.
Wonton stall crew check out the local news.
Glam poser lady who requested I take her photo hahaha
Glam lady who demanded I take her photo hahaha 

Carpets, fabrics, patterns. A local guy approached us in broken English and said he cannot get a passport with a Xinjiang hukou (registration). I’d later meet a dude with a Xinjiang hukou who couldn’t even visit a scenic spot on the border with Pakistan, in the province where he was born.

We took a ride with a Uighur driver who couldn’t speak Mandarin to the Jiaohe Ruins, where we melted in 40 degree heat surrounded by the remains of an ancient city.

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The Grand Central Temple. Jiaohe Ruins.

The Uighur specialty dish, ‘big plate chicken’ dà pán jī 大盘鸡, emerged on two plates of spicy chicken, noodles and potato.

“Where are you all from?” the laoban of the Famous in Turpan restaurant asked me in Mandarin with a smile. I responded: New Zealand, the Netherlands, France and the U.S was our combination that evening.

“Welcome!” he responded with a grin and adding “so you know, I don’t mean any offence by it!”

“Of course not!” I replied, and we shook hands and waved goodbye while saying “bai bai!” and the Uighur form, “khosh!”

BIG PLATE CHICKEN.
BIG PLATE(S) CHICKEN. Turpan styles.

If you are looking for accommodation in Turpan, go no further than the Turpan Dap Hostel, 吐鲁番达卜青年旅馆, run by original Fuzhou gal Tang, her husband Liu and their golden retriever Hadou! Located in a quiet neighbourhood in a traditional Uighur-style courtyard covered in grapevines. They welcomed us in and let us enjoy their beautiful hostel, as well as providing sage travel advice and even POSTING MY UNDIES TO CHENGDU WHEN I FORGOT THEM ON THE WASHING LINE!!

Tang: "Why are you going to Aksu ئاقسۇ 阿克苏?!" 
Me: "Cos we wanna go down to Hotan خوتەن 和田." 
Tang: "....why would you wanna go to Hotan?"

And with that, we disembarked our next overnight train in the dusty, little town of Kuche كۇچار‎ 库车 instead.

High speed trains have made their way to Xinjiang, while the line that runs through the belly from Urumqi to Kashgar has improved tremendously, said one Han driver from Gansu who’d been in Xinjiang for over 25 years. He likes it. He could understand Uighur but only speak a little of the rapid, Turkic-lingua franca: “我的舌头发不出来” (‘my tongue can’t get the words out!’) He thought the train improvements were positive, noting that all kinds of people use them now. There are long haul buses too, which are cheaper.

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Chinese characters fell away. Elegant hooks, calligraphic swoops and diamond-shaped dots of Uighur adorned the remaining dusty, flat brick buildings of Kuche’s Old Town.

Coloured headscarves for women and square, pointed doppa hats for men, white-grey beards on the elders. I felt so silly for trying to speak Mandarin in a restaurant where the menu was completely in Uighur for its completely Uighur customer base. Noodle soup and nang that tasted like pizza with a big pot of black tea, however, were achieved that morning.

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What was up with the photos of soldiers in the corners of all these standardised shop signs?!

Big ornate doors opened into courtyards similar to the old Chinese courtyard homes 四合院 which have now largely been bulldozed to make way for apartment buildings to house the swelling urban populations. The open doorways on ‘Rasta Lu’ revealed all sorts of happenings: woodwork, noodles, dough, toilet paper, barbers, dentists, bread makers, vegetables, steel works tink-tink-tinking away…

Nang flat breads sat outside the abundant bakeries, stacked and displayed with Newtown New World-like precision. Bed bases covered with rugs for sitting and snoozing lay out on the street, occupied by smiling families and their gorgeous babies with big, wide eyes. The one child policy does not apply to China’s ethnic minorities. A large clay oven revealed dozens of samsa stuck to the inner walls like lichen on a rock.

Samsa,” I observed, sidling up to the beefy pastries to snap a photo.
“Mmm, samsa,” echoed a by-standing elder who donned the classic dark-green doppa hat, nodding with content.

Homeless old people with dark, leathery skin lined the bridge from the Old Town across the arid, scorched river bed; their hands outstretched with small wads of jiao notes, their toothless mouthes wailing in a tormented arrangement of Uighur. Later on, I saw an impoverished man sprawled out on the ground of a food street, eating the fallen peanuts from a nearby stall.
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Wandering around Kuche with our backpacks in the sun, we met Xinjiang ice-cream. Sweet, tangy ice-cream solidified in a rotating freeze machine and scooped into little pottles of goodness for 1 kuai each. Armed cops sat idly among apples and watermelons. A three-wheeler trundled past the vegetables and covered bowls of yogurt with a baby strapped into a hammock in the back.

A Uighur man jammed his three-stringed snakeskin lute outside a neighbouring teahouse. His strumming wrist was sore, so he let me have a try. The instrument had a chunky neck with frets marked by fine, nylon string, with a twangy timbre similar to the Turkish doshpuluur I played in Litang. The community gathered round with intrigue. An older lady plonked herself down and spoke with me at length in Uighur about an unknown topic. My awkward interjection of “不好意思,我听不懂,” “sorry, I don’t understand,” did little to break the flow of this mystery monologue.

It was truly humbling to sit at that tea table with them—welcomed into the bosom of their community without question.
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A bizarre By the Rivers of Babylon remix played on repeat with another random club banga on the 民族街 Food Street. Sweet potatoes, Turkish egg pancakes, lamb skewers, more samsa and icecream. We eventually found ourselves walking past a Uighur primary school as class was let out for the day. Kids spilled out onto the road, hopping on the back of mini motor buses home. Boys played in water spouting from a burst pipe. 

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Ben and his new mates. School's out in Kuche!
Ben and his new mates. School’s out in Kuche!

Security scans, black dogs and riot cops armed with rifles greeted us in the southwestern city of Kashgar قەشقەر شەھرى 喀什, closer to Bishkek, Tashkent and Islamabad than Beijing. On the bus into town, a Uighur was punched in the face by a Han. There was a brief scuffle, in which no one dared intervene.

The Pamir Youth Hostel sits next door to the Id Kah Mosque in the centre of town. Wu Laoban is a skinny, chain-smoking Han dude from Heilongjiang in the far northeast— a province famed for sub-zero winters, the Harbin Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival and year-round coal smog.

Wu is staunchly anti-Muslim and despises the Uighurs for despising him. He freely discussed them alongside the need for ‘控制’ (‘control’). Speaking with Wu was an interesting insight into this Han Xinjiang resident perspective, to hear how people from the majority feel when they become the 少数民族, the ethnic minority. When I asked if he could understand any Uighur after four years, he shook his head vigorously and replied that he only knew the sound of the Uighur slur for “fuck you.”

As an optimistic foreigner that had been in Xinjiang for all of five minutes, I told Wu all about the positive experiences we’d had with the local Uighurs so far.

“Try going out alone,” Wu said, toplessly smoking another cigarette in his non-smoking hostel lounge, “without your foreign friend.”

It was as if he was daring me into some kind of perilous danger; and his words sent shivers down my sweat-ridden spine.

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Animal carcasses hung upside down from every third or fourth shop, carefully inspected, pinched and prodded by local consumers and restauranteurs, selected and chopped up on a wooden board with a small axe. “thwack-Thwack-THWACK!!”

The crusty yet majestic, half torn down yet floodlit (!) ruins of Kashgar’s original Old Town. Bulldozers sat a top cleared land and the omnipresent red Chinese slogan banners (横幅 héngfú) hung above. Random cows continued to graze and shuffle about on a street behind the construction site. We clambered up the stone stairs into the grove of alleyways, steps, overpasses and balconies, all of which seemed eerily deserted, except for a few quiet, remaining families. Two dudes were torching severed goat heads in an open furnace.

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One evening, when everyone was just chilling on the Pamir rooftop, sitting cross-legged on cushions a top the wooden platforms draped with that quintessentially Xinjiang fabric, the mosque’s call to prayer lingering in the air, three geared up cops with flashlight mounted AK-47s shimmied in the door. Fuck!

I asked ‘Zhao Laoshi,’ Wu’s girlfriend and co-laoban about it once they’d gone. She was completely unfazed by such a routine procedure, noting they get only checked occasionally, while the Uighur-run hotels get checked every night.

Statue of Mao Zedong down on one of Kashgar's main streets.
Statue of Mao Zedong down on one of Kashgar’s main streets.

The public bus was chock-a-block full of Uighur school kids and locals heading home for lunch. A cute, little girl of maybe eight-years-old bravely posited a question to me on behalf of a dozen curious classmates.

“姐姐,你是美国人吗?” “Big sister, are you American?” she asked in perfect Putonghua, while my ‘husband’ Ben was sardined up the aisle among the other commuters.

“不是,我是新西兰人!” “No, I’m a New Zealander!” I replied, sparking a flourish of Uighur analysis among the thrush of tiny children. The leader spoke again.

“姐姐,你是汉族吗?” “Big sister, are you Han?”

“是的。” “Yes.”

This sparked endless excitable chatter, accompanied by a headscarf gesture. Students are prohibited from wearing headscarves to school in Xinjiang (see aforementioned Millward article). The Han stick to the Han areas, and speak of the Uighur areas in a foreboding Mufasa style discourse of what happens to those who venture into the shadow lands beyond Pride Rock.

A Han chick aboard the local bus was a foreigner; and a Han chick wearing a headscarf was an anomaly.

Bai bai!” they tweeted gleefully, full of waving and smiles as they bounced off the bus and into the street.

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On the last Sunday of our trip in Xinjiang, I ventured out “without my foreign friend,” to test the strength of Wu’s evaluation on Uighur-Han relations…

There’s a kind of wide-eyed innocence and vulnerability that comes with being a non-native speaker. You have less suspicion of people, you are less jaded, you have less experience in traversing the markers of character through the nuances of speech.

Ordering food in Kashgar in Mandarin:
Me: "Do you have noodles?" 
Laoban: "Yes, but not till 10am."
Me: "Great, just another ten minutes!" 
Laoban: "No no no, 10am Xinjiang time!!"
Lamb for breakfast, again.

Morning tea was served in a white teapot inlayed with ornate, turquoise flowers. A bowl of polo پولۇ, 抓饭, Uighur pilaf: a generous pile of rice with grated carrot and an unbelievably breakfast-sized lamb bone planted on top. A side platter of vinegary bright orange and yellow-green preserves, arranged neatly atop the washed out blues, purples and browns of the outdoor woven tablecloth. “Raqmed!”

My day at the Kashgar Livestock Market 动物市场 and the Sunday Market 星期日市场 is scrawled in frantic shorthand as “absolutely bonkers, chaotic, manure, loud, wonderful, hot, gross, shocking and wow.” These two sights are often considered ‘must-sees’ by tourist guidebooks and I was excited to get lost in the madness. With spot-on directions from Zhao Laoshi, I put on my headscarf and was off.

I caught the #7 and the #23 to the Livestock Market, and was easily the only foreigner on board either bus. When the #23 rattled to a halt at the final destination, the driver yelled out the name in Uighur and an old bearded man in a dark-green doppa gestured to me that we’d arrived. I joined the human migration up the road towards the market entrance and he said something to me in Uighur, to which I apologetically uttered a “听不懂.” He calmly raised his right hand with a nod, as if to indicate that whatever he said was not of much importance anyway.

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Holy. Mother. Of Woah. Trucks full of sheep with their heads clamped in a row sped down the road. A couple were cracking up as they tried to wrangle themselves onto a 50cc scooter with a live goat positioned sideways across the bottom, clearly seeing the utter ridiculousness of the equation. Near a grassy embankment, a dead sheep was strung up by its hind legs and sliced down the belly with a knife, where its pink-grey guts fell out of its body with the gravitational spill of an unzipped bag of toiletries.

Eeekkk!! A donkey harnessed into a wooden swing structure had a back leg slowly winched upwards with a pulley. Oh, wait, whew – just a donkey shoe repair station!

Goats, sheep, horses, camels, cows and people with hats and veils of all fashions, even more diverse than the ones seen in town, blurred into one manically bustling scene. Breeders from all over the region flock to this market every Sunday. Mooing, baaing, neighing, whinnying underscored the constant yelling of bargains in an incomprehensible rabble of Eurasian dialects. Faaaaaaaa out!!

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I bustled through the swine and legs and poo behind (though almost beneath) all the livestock vehicles, horse-drawn carriages, colossal bulls and small children, while gaining my fair share of stares and confused looks. Donkeys bucked about wildly and camels bared their big, yellow teeth. Carts sped off and sent cow dung flying into the air. The edges of the market were lined with tarpaulin-covered eateries, where firey ovens pumped out samsa, noodle soups an endless pots of tea as crowds of men in doppa hats sat around the cluster of tables. Herds of goats were pulled around by hollering businessmen, a horse raced down the rocky mud-gravel at the back of the yards, creating an incredibly satisfying galloping sound of hoof to dirt, that crunchy ‘clop-clop-CLOP!’

Swear I almost shat myself when I was encircled by a  donkey cart. It felt like my heart rate was up by a zillion bpm, while my eyes had bulged to twice their usual size and I kept gasping aloud involuntarily into the hot and smelly market air. Curious at everything, yet urged along by the overwhelming sense of movement to shuffle through it all with the endless stream of living, breathing things. 
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Fruit and vegetable carts parked up at the gates of the Livestock Market and I was quite relieved to be around some non-sentient produce. These two watermelon vendors held up their finest product and asked me to take their photo! Cool guys!

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The #23 back into town had everyone packed in like sheep in the back of a pick up truck. The roads surrounding the Sunday Market were absolute madness— completely criss-crossed in all directions with motorbikes, buses, cars, pedicabs, horse-drawn carts, fruit vendors, snack trolleys, shoppers, pedestrians… pretty much anything with wheels or feet. And then some. Zhao Laoshi had mentioned there was a section out the back of the main market where the locals go to shop. I bumped into some of the Chinese crew from the hostel who were heading back to the Old Town. When I told the Jiangsu girl that I’d caught the bus to the Livestock Market, she stared at me as if I were Joan of Arc, or… Mulan.

This market was beyond massive. Anything and everything was for sale in enormous quantities. Trestle tables of torches, aisles of alarm clocks and of course endless stalls of local patterned fabrics. Out the back, was indeed where the action was. If the Livestock Market was a male domain, then the Sunday Market was where da ladies at. Arabian style white veils with regal crowns on top, high turbans, loose flowing veils, classic tied back kerchiefs and more. Some women had drawn on their eyebrows with blue eyeliner in a straight line across both brows. Kid vendors yelling at the top of their lungs about shoes. Feeding frenzy bargain bins. There was some serious shopping going down. I bought a bunch of red and green fabric, deftly cut and measured by a barefoot fabric vendor, which is now on my wall in Chengdu!

Exhausted, hungry and sweaty, it was time to retreat to Pamir. The roads were chaotic, the buses were bursting at the seams. A three wheeler with rug-covered benches on the back was chugging past while the driver yelled out “ID KAAAAAAH!! ID KAAAAAAH!” so I flagged him down and hopped on, joining an absolutely ancient woman in a pink veil, a mother and daughter, a classic dark green doppa elder and about six more people who would squash with us during our quick, 3 kuai zip through the backstreets to the Id Kah Mosque. So awesome!! Whizzing down these alleys I’d never have known about, past a guy kneading mud concrete with his bare feet, through the distinctive smell of cumin and spices from the charcoal-smoked lamb kebabs. People piled in as quick as they piled out. What a wild day.

“Huh? How’d you get back so fast?!” the Chinese crew asked, surprised to find me back at Pamir before them.

Because I trust the locals. Because I have trust.

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There is so much to be said about Xinjiang. 

The encounters I had in Turpan, Kuche and Kashgar (I haven’t even gone into Karakul Lake) are all I can write about at length with my mere amateur understanding of the intricate and often controversial complexities of Xinjiang’s greater historic, cultural and social situation.

There’s always so much more to learn, discover and consider.

Ben fashioned as a turd at Karakul Lake. Sunrise. Freezing our butts off.
Ben fashioned as a turd at Karakul Lake for a beautiful sunrise, where we stayed in a Kyrgyz yurt. Near the border with Tajikistan. Freezing our butts off. Ben wears: Uighur hat, it has ‘sheep’ inside.
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Hahaha this ad is such a winner, had to make it in somehow.

Xie xie and RAQMED to all!

Shout out to my mains Ben ‘Cool Charm Rachel’ Allnatt for being an incredible travel companion, as always!

Until next time, Xinjiang!

Why Robin Hyde is My Homegirl

Robin Hyde, born Iris Guiver Wilkinson, was a New Zealand journalist, poet and novelist who raised her middle finger at the expectations of housewifery in post-WWI society by travelling solo to the frontline in China during the war with Japan in 1938.

The resulting work was Dragon Rampant.

"I haven't attempted anything so presumptuous as a book about China– only a record of things seen and heard during a few months of the Sino-Japanese war; and, for the rest, faces, voices."  - From the Introduction to Dragon Rampant
Robin Hyde. Lyall Bay. Image from the University of Auckland.
Robin Hyde doesn’t care what you think. Image from the University of Auckland.

When the humdrum rhetoric from our Government leaders about wartime sacrifice and national identity finally came to a close at the Anzac centenary commemorations last month, the $120m refurbishment of Wellington War Memorial glimmered in the half light of dawn, we all lamented on how truly fucked up Gallipoli was, and heaved a close-lipped, polite sigh of relief.

Now in May, the world media are turning towards to the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, the fall of Nazi Germany to the Allies and the Soviets. School curriculums, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ tea towels and museum displays will ensure that this triumphant vanquishing of evil is tattooed on the nation’s collective historical consciousness forevermore.

Upon rewinding the clock just a touch further, our stored memories of the horrors exacted by Japanese forces in China during the 1930s seem either hazy or absent. Nazi concentration camps, Hitler, Hiroshima and Nagasaki… history became fatigued with atrocities, and the events that occurred before Pearl Harbour are often overshadowed.

The Second Sino-Japanese War was a brutal imperial conquest that inflicted incalculable destruction, disease and dismemberment, massacred tens of millions of people, forced thousands of ‘comfort women’ 慰安婦 into sex slavery, and scattered countless numbers of men, women and children to strange, foreign lands such as New Zealand, where the only such welcome was the Government’s two pronged omission of the Chinese poll tax and additional maintenance taxes

Those who fled Canton for Hong Kong for Aotearoa during the war are either not with us anymore, or understandably, just do not wanna talk about that shit. For both the media and the heads-down work-hard old-hand Chinese of New Zealand, this history is largely left unspoken.

Which is where Robin comes in.

Image from Te Ara.
Image from Te Ara.

Robin Hyde, born Iris Wilkinson in Capetown, South Africa on 19 January 1906, was an outspoken and outstanding New Zealander who challenged the personal and professional boundaries of patriarchal New Zealand society. Driven to be a great writer, Hyde set out on a path that would invariably lead her away from the life of a married “Hawkes Bay housewife.” A socialist and a feminist, she studied Te Reo in order to better understand the plight of the Maori, she attended riots in Auckland and made a name for herself writing for publications up and down the country on everything from parliamentary issues to children’s stories.

A prolific and talented writer, Hyde’s work is often discussed alongside the many traumas that punctuated her short life: the loss of lovers, the death of her first child, her second child born secretly out of wedlock, physical disability, long months of hospitalisation that brought on a lifelong addiction to sedatives, attempted suicide and institutionalisation for her ongoing mental illness, where she voluntarily checked into ‘The Lodge’ in Albany, where Janet Frame would be treated with electro-shock therapy ten years later, as documented in the harrowing semi-biographical novel Faces in the Water.

"Since I don't speak of mystical faith, but of the faith of man in man, before faith there must be understanding. And what may be found, perhaps, in this book– an effort to understanding." (13)
“Since I don’t speak of mystical faith, but of the faith of man in man, before faith there must be understanding. And what may be found, perhaps, in this book– an effort to understanding.” (13)

I managed to find a copy of Hyde’s 1939 novel Dragon Rampant at Arty Bees in Wellington before I came back to China last year – a memoir of her spontaneous five-month stint in war-torn China, a second-hand edition published by the New Women’s Press with an introduction by her son Derek Challis, critical notes by Linda Hardy and Hyde’s travel permit stamped and signed by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek on the front cover.

In January 1938, after discharging herself from The Lodge, Hyde planned to head to London via the Trans-Siberian Railway to gather new material for a book that would ultimately provide financial support for her son. However, aboard the S.S Changte from Sydney to Hong Kong, Hyde had her first real encounter with Chinese people and culture, meeting “sweet and sour pork,eggs with crimson insides,” (24) alongside amicable people from bombed villages with whom she sympathised and wanted to help. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, she wrote to her family “the conviction that I’m not going any place but China came over me,” and she purchased a boat ticket to Shanghai instead.

Map showing Robin Hyde's route across China. Image from NZEPC.
Map showing Robin Hyde’s route across China. Image from NZEPC.

During my journey to the south of China this year, I brought Robin along in my backpack, where her beautifully crafted prose in old-fashioned English and old-school Wade-Giles pinyin provided me with much companionship and inspiration as I traversed the same land she did more than 75 years prior. While I was craning my head upwards at the towering skyscrapers of Guangzhou, she was there watching the skies for Japanese aerial attacks. As I trucked out to the rural countryside to meet distant relatives, she was meeting with army generals and discussing military objectives. As I occasionally longed for New Zealand, Robin did, too. And so it was, us two Kiwi girls on the road.

I was searching for my roots in Guangdong, piecing together the family puzzle that scattered with the dropping of Japanese bombs. Robin helped to fill in the blanks of the stories I was never able to ask my grandparents.

On July 7, 1937, full scale war breaks out with Japan in China. Circa ’37, my maternal grandfather Yee Jeng Doon moves from Guangdong to New Zealand.

In February 1938, Robin Hyde arrived in Hong Kong. A stranger in a strange land, she wrote bluntly of her new identity: “You are the foreigner. Nobody loves you.” (37) Rickshas, opium, smallpox, dead children, British broadcasts, Sikh police officers, Tiger Balm, “toys with bright cheap plumage, furniture, hats, camphor chests, restaurants, fish-shops where split and dried sharks show golden-brown over dangling remnants of octopus…” (52)

My paternal grandmother Hon Yue was also in Hong Kong in 1938. She had fled from her village in Guangdong (some say on foot) and was staying in a rented shack in Sum Sui Po with several other women. Hong Kong was invaded by the Japanese just eight hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, when she hurried back to Guangdong.

In April 1938, Robin arrived in Canton (now known as Guangzhou) instead of staying in Shanghai and writing herself “blind, deaf and dumb for the Middle West” (100). My Por Por was around Canton at the time. Her brother Kan Bong would have been just a toddler in Pang Jeel. Guangzhou is now a giant megalopolis full of skyscrapers and subway lines, thought it was rather empty when I was there over Chinese New Year.

“For three weeks, while I was there,” Robin told me, “bombing casualties were few and purely sporadic, though we had at least two air raids and probably more signals every day. In the last week, the bombers were annoyed, changed their tactics, killed 180 civilians, besides bringing back the old fuss and nervousness.”

“Occassionally some harmless old sheep of a village got bombed and machine-gunned; (after the first phase there were seldom any visible defence planes in Canton, and though the anti-aircraft guns rattled away so importantly, really all they did was to drop remarkable quantities of shrapnel in everybody’s backyards).” (117)

Hyde interviewed Governor Wu Te-chen of Canton:

“Do you think it likely Kwungtung may be invaded?”

“Oh, well!” he stood up, politely, “it is not at all unlikely” (136)

Canton, the capital of Kwungtung (now spelt Guangdong) fell to Japan in October 1938, around the time Robin started writing Dragon Rampant near Kent in England.

The wounded being taken to hospital on a cart, and attended by two Nurses, c.1938. Canton. Image from http://www.presbyterian.org.nz.
The wounded being taken to hospital on a cart, and attended by two Nurses, c.1938. Canton. Image from www.presbyterian.org.nz.

Like myself, Robin grew up in Wellington and has an adoring affection for the place. Her family rented various ‘dingy houses’ in Newtown, Melrose and Berhampore, before eventually settling in Northland. As a child, Iris attended Berhampore School and SWIS, where her love of poetry began. One day she wandered from home and was found curled up writing verse in an old boat at Island Bay.

Wellington Girls College students performing Swedish drill, Parents Day, 1927. Photograph taken by P H Jauncey, Wellington, in 1927. Image from Natlib.
Wellington Girls College students performing Swedish drill, Parents Day, 1927. Photograph taken by P H Jauncey, Wellington, in 1927. Image from Natlib.govt.nz.

As a teen, she attended Wellington Girls’ College. Like many friends of mine, Hyde found ‘Dub Gee C’ to be rather ‘stodgy and cold,’ though it provided her an environment where she could develop her writing skills. I imagine Iris would sneak out at lunchtime to smoke rollies under the bridge like my WGC friends used to do. Heh.

Having Dragon Rampant with me on the trip was like having a friend from home, someone who could make observations with the same wind-swept Wellington worldview. Of fishers Hong Kong she wrote: “This custom seemed familiar. It is what the Italian fishermen do at Island Bay in Wellington” (32), while in Chengchow (now Zhengzhou), she noted: “the same catkin-grasses and convolvuli we knew around the Wellington bays.” (203)

I found a pohutukawa like flower in Guangzhou and wondered what Robin might have thought of it…

“Almost every night, lying in the red padded quilt, I dreamed about New Zealand, dreams so sharp and vivid that when I woke up, it seemed the black-tiled houses that were a fairy tale.”

Dragon Rampant, p. 97

As a foreign female journalist in wartime China, Hyde was often surrounded by condescending men in the Press who didn’t take her seriously. The big boys of the New Zealand-China story during the early twentieth century Mr. Rewi Alley and Mr. James Bertram met with Hyde on her journey and thought of her as a naive girl on a reckless adventure, but helped her on her way regardless. The freelancing Kiwi writer James Bertram, who provided Hyde with assistance and companionship in China and afterwards in England, gave the book an unfavourable review in Landfall 1953, palming Hyde off as a “precocious child” who has written “a rather embarrassing record of dangerous living and over-stretched ambition.”

James Bertram and Hsiao, North Shanxi, China, 1938. Image from Te Ara.
James Bertram and Hsiao, North Shanxi, China, 1938. Image from Te Ara.

“They are too polite to say so. But can’t you see that you’d be an encumbrance to them?”

I don’t like any reference to women as encumbrances, chance or otherwise.

“Go to Hell. We’ll see whether I’m an encumbrance.”

Dragon Rampant, p. 206

Hyde’s vexation at the way some foreigners would treat the local people was heightened by her genuine desire to help. In one chapter, she wanted to give some coins to a leper on the street, but two Australian men stood in front of her and yelled obscenities at him in English. The way men would get protective of her and the way foreigners would dehumanise the Chinese clearly got to her, and she often felt more comfortable in the company of the Chinese. “I wanted to get away from anyone who might possible speak my language” (184). Though as a white foreigner, she found her efforts to be friendly with the Chinese often ended with confusion: “I was sorry for her and tried to be very friendly, so immediately she thought I was insane” (83).

Bertram described Dragon Rampant as “fragmentary and chaotic, and not very easy to follow.” Anyone who has ever travelled in China will know the experience is precisely that, so a written account which manages to capture the chaos must be on point!

Each sentence bursts with the illustrative descriptions that Hyde is so well known for in her poetry; the sensory overload one is confronted with in China conveyed through a myriad of tenses and voices in Hyde’s writing. Sobering descriptions of rotten corpses and bombed villages, a harrowing scene where a raped Chinese woman tries to kill herself by swallowing a pair of sharp-pointed earrings, intertwined with interviews, anecdotes, conversations, poetry and insight into the human condition during wartime.

Hyde was writing for a Shanghai newspaper and attended a Press meeting in Canton. Her accounts of how the foreign Press would report the war back home are underlined by her sympathy to China’s cause and her own desire to foster an understanding of the nation’s struggles in her readers. “Canton, Hankow. Within a few days these cities were gone, neither achieving much of a sunset on western front pages,” (13) she laments in the introductionwritten from a caravan in England at the start of 1939.

The atrocity fatigue of world news reportage goes on: “‘Even if there’s another Nanking,’ one American reporter told me, during Pa Ta Chia’s chocolates, tea, bulletones and bonhomie, ‘what of it? There’s already been one Nanking.'” (169) These words recur in Hyde’s narration throughout the rest of the book, despite all the suffering and death she sees, the papers won’t report it with Nanking like enthusiasm. “And it is so hard to make West take East even a little seriously,” (193) she rues.

Hyde’s descriptions of the people she meets along the way are made with keen observation and for me, are the highlight of the book. The writer Agnes Smedley “kept looking at the flowers as if she expected them to turn into string sandals, munitions, or a small donation for the Orphans’ University in the north-west” (176), the Chinese-Australian girl Rene Hsu “alternated between being twelve years of age and approximately a Chinese five thousand” (22). Hyde’s impressions of other people show off her humour and wit, alongside her ability to capture the best and worst facets of the human condition. “Her eyes were exactly like those of an eighteen-year-old who used to come up to me and talk in a New Zealand book-shop,” (216) she wrote of an injured villager named Mrs. Wong. The human spirit transcended race. Later in London, Hyde said Dragon Rampant was “secondarily a war book, primarily a book about people—not Consular book—or maybe a war book reflected through people.”

Contrary to many biographies online, Hyde sustained an eye injury not from the assault by Japanese soldiers, but “a poor old scared devil of a Chinese peasant,” who pushed her down a hill.

The image of Hyde limping for thirty miles along the Lunghai railway line in her bid to escape the captured burning city of Hsuchowfu (now known as Xuzhou) with a bung leg and a fucked up eye is an enduring description of Hyde’s epic bravery and insane commitment to the art of journalism and storytelling.

Photo of Hyde taken during a visit by Dr. Buchanan to Hyde's rented caravan at Pope's Hall in Kent, which she apparently called "Little China". November 11, 1938. Image and caption from Oztypewriter Blog.
Photo of Hyde taken during a visit by Dr. Henry Meredith Buchanan to Hyde’s rented caravan at Pope’s Hall in Kent, which she apparently called “Little China”. November 11, 1938. Image and caption from Oztypewriter Blog.

On her second attempt to make a “pedestrian retreat” out of Hsuchowfu, perhaps inspired by the “brains, courage and energy” of Miss Chang Yi-Lien and “another diminutive Chinese girl writer” (193) who had succeeded in escaping on foot, Hyde was captured by Japanese soldiers and eventually handed over to the British in Qingdao, who sent her to Hong Kong via Shanghai where she recovered briefly in hospital and wrote of her longings to return home, but her internal pressure to continue on to England.

 “I want New Zealand, though I doubt if it’s a reciprocal affection.”

– Hyde to her family, Hong Kong. 23 July, 1938.

 

Hampered by tropical illnesses, post-traumatic stress, drug addiction and her ongoing mental illness, Robin spent the final months of her life in England with the support of James Bertram, Charles Brasch and fellow writers. Dragon Rampant was published in 1939 to favourable reviews, but it was quickly overshadowed by the looming war in England. The situation worsened in China and now in Europe. In August 1939, the New Zealand High Commissioner visited Hyde in London and arranged her journey home to New Zealand, where in an inquest he reported she wanted to go back to China. But it was too late.

Robin Hyde took her own life by overdosing on Benzedrine at a cottage in Notting Hill on 23 August 1939, never to make it back to her beloved New Zealand. The following year, my Yeye Carr Yam immigrated from Canton to Hong Kong to New Zealand to join his father. Hon Yue managed to get out in 1948.

Her writings in Dragon Rampant and in her poems about China in Houses By the Sea would capture the humanity, strength and suffering of a people so readily discriminated by her countrymen (she was ashamed of New Zealand’s racist immigration policies at the time). She desperately wanted her fellow New Zealanders to understand; that would be the way she could help.

Hyde often reiterated her amateurish knowledge about the greater situation and admitted to feeling “ignorant and childish” (83) in the company of her more informed counterparts, yet published Dragon Rampant, originally titled Accepting Summer, in her efforts to “understand fragments of the mosaic” (9). Her longing wish to help was staggered by the enormity of the country, the sheer amount of suffering and the ginormous population, but her writings were not in vain.

While books by James Bertram and Rewi Alley may record a more ‘complete’ picture of the Sino-Japanese War, Dragon Rampant survives as an important document of the multiplicity of sights, sounds, smells and voices of wartime China, both poetic and journalistic, recorded earnestly by a Kiwi woman who was not so ignorant as to believe she could become ‘one’ with the Chinese people (an encounter with Japanese soldiers told her she’d be shot if she weren’t white), but through her compassionate attitude to all human beings and solidarity with China’s plight to defend itself, she produced a remarkable, enduring account of a brutal war that is often overlooked by the Anglophone world.

May her memory go on.

R.I.P Iris.

x

Header image via Oztypewriter, who has written an excellent article on Hyde’s typewriter and travels. Robin Hyde writing outside Charles Brasch’s rented cottage in Wiltshire, April 20, 1939.

Research resources  NZEPCVictoria University, NZ History.

A Wellingtonian in Xiamen

Did you know Wellington has a sister city in China? Her name is Xiamen 厦门She is an island city of 3.5 million people on the south Fujian coast, and she is lovely.

Kiwese went to Xiamen for a few days and spoke to various people who have made the city their home.

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Nestled down on the south-east coast of the Mainland, Xiamen 厦门 was chosen as Wellington’s sister city in 1987, after Prime Minister David Lange pushed for more sisterhood during a trip to China in the early 80s. You got it, sistah.

Xiamen has named a street in the capital’s honour 惠灵顿路 and established a ‘Wellington Garden’ at their Horticultural Expo Garden, complete with native plants and sculptures like the ones on the City to Sea Bridge. Last year, a deal was signed to establish a Chinese garden on the Wellington Waterfront, a casual twenty years after the idea was first raised. Good ol’ speedy NZ.

Zengcuo’an 曾厝垵

I stayed at the Antelope Hostel in Zengcuo’an 曾厝垵, a former fishing village on the south coast. Antelope owner and new media creative enthusiast Lingyang 羚羊, originally from Sichuan, started her small hostel in the area four years ago, back when it was still a quiet set of stone streets inhabited by local eateries and B&Bs, along with a community of artists, musos, writers and poets who began to made the area their home in the late 1990s, attracted to the gentle pace of life, dilapidated charm and ocean breeze.

“About two years ago, the Government decided that Zengcuo’an would be the new arts and tourism hub of Xiamen,” she says, as we chat over cups of green tea in the homely common area of the Antelope, “since then, the rent has soared, everyone moved out and it all turned into KTV bars, souvenir shops and overpriced snack stands.” she sighs. “It used to be so quiet.”

“The artists moved away to a different area. Every time people start making unique things, development comes in and it all becomes the same again. The stuff for sale at these kind of shops is the same all over China.”

Sadly, Zengcuo’an has now transformed into another tacky tourist trap, full of selfie-sticked visitors who pass through the area for a few hours, littering the once quaint and quiet streets with shaokao sticks and snack rubbish. Read more about the old artist community of Zengcuo’an here.

Antelope Hostel.
Antelope Hostel. A welcome refuge from the noise and bustle that Zengcuo’an has become.

Sea 海洋 

I came across an old Landfall 1993 at Xiamen Library, too scrappy to be included in the cabinet with the hardcover All Blacks book and Wellington photo collection, yet effortlessly more valuable in sentiment. This issue included the poem ‘Weather’ by Jenny Bornholdt, which opens with the lines: Air ripe / With the sea.

Yes. Both Xiamen and Wellington have air ripe with the sea.

That familiar sandy grit underfoot, waves lapping around my ankles. Ocean, moana, 海洋. It was a beautiful thing to be reunited with the sea during my visit to Xiamen. Unlike Qingdao, the only other Mainland coastal town I’ve visited in China, Xiamen’s beaches are remarkably well maintained – certainly the result of the painstaking hours the beach cleaners put in from 5am every morning.

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Beach Culture 海滩文化

While Wellingtonians reach for their togs and towels when the sun comes out, the attitude towards the beach is notably different in China, partly due to the prevailing, historic notions of white skin and beauty. There is a different kind of relationship with the ocean here. Unlike the beaches full of locals in Qingdao, nobody was swimming. Though it is still winter, I guess!

Tucked down by the Hulishan Cannon Fort on Zhenzhuwan Beach 珍珠湾沙滩, two Dutch sailors have established a small beachside sanctuary. Handmade bamboo beach chairs, teepee chill out zones, an outdoor stage and sound system, a brazier for campfires and a caravan serving beer and snacks, the Daring Duck has created a unique and beach minded space unlike anything else in Xiamen.

Co-owner Mark says he and scout leader Paul managed to secure the area on a one year lease from the local Government, under a mandate that they run outdoor activities for children. The Daring Duck offers sailing, kayaking and paddle boarding, as well as scout programs which have been well-received by the kids.

“Qingdao was used for all the water sports during the Olympics,” Mark says, as we chat over some Tsingdaos, “but the conditions are actually much better for sailing here in Xiamen.”

Daring Duck
Daring Duck

Beer 啤酒

These days, Wellington is overflowing with craft beer, the city is crying happy, hoppy, alcoholic tears. And in Xiamen?

German designers David and Felix originally came to Xiamen to give a series of lectures at the Xiamen University of Technology. They stayed on, bought some beer gear off Taobao and started their own craft beer brand and bar Amoy Brau on Daxue Lu 大学路, near Xiamen University and Shapowei 沙坡尾.

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Co-owner David and his gf Ting Ting at the original Amoy Brau on Daxue Lu, near Shapowei.
Co-owner David and his girlfriend Ting Ting at the original branch on Daxue Lu, near Shapowei.

I sat down for a glass of 7 Horses IPA 七匹马 and had a chat with co-founder David. “We want to make beer for Chinese customers,” he says, pouring a glass beaker of beer for a crew of hip young gals, “so we use local products in our brews, like yángméi 杨梅 (bayberry), lychee, Chinese tea and flowers.”

Amoy Brau appears to be well liked by the local community, and at one point David gets invited down the road by an old lady to look at the spread she has made for Chinese New Year. He returns and shows me some photos of the elaborate handmade decorations they’ve made for their ancestors. “Our clients are about 80% Chinese,” he says, “first it was locals from the area, just drinking on the chairs we’ve got on the street.”

Over in Zengcuo’an, the second coming of Amoy Brau has been open for three weeks. Co-founder Felix says it has been a bit slow so far, as the type of foot traffic in the area are predominately Chinese tourists who aren’t so interested in sitting down for a beer or coffee.

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The Amoy Brau boys are currently working on a new bar down the road at Shapowei, in an old factory building next to Real Livehouse, the only real live music venue in Xiamen. Having run electronic dance parties in the tunnels beneath the city, David also hopes that the new factory space will get a bit more of an electronic scene happening in the city.

Public Transport 公交

Public buses in Xiamen cost 1RMB per trip. That’s about 20 cents. While the buses are popular with tourists and locals, the roads around the south of the island and near the university are heavily congested, due to a growing population, a ban on electric scooters on main roads and a complete ban on motorcycles. Cheap as chips though and very convenient. Come on Wellington!

Street Art 街头艺术

The pedestrian street of Ding Ao Zi Mao Jie 顶澳仔猫街 is home to some interesting cat street art. The street is home to a wide range of different stores, stretching down from cafes, a yoga studio, the Chinese European Art Centre and clothing stores, right down to streetside vegetable ladies and seafood restaurants.

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The bottom of the street leads into a quiet residential zone, where old apartment buildings cluster together peacefully around coffee shops and small independent clothes shops. Left Bank feels.

University 大学

Xiamen University 厦门大学, known as Xiada 厦大 for short, is well known for being the most beautiful university in China and it is not difficult to see why. The campus also doubles as a tourist attraction and on the weekends you may even need to queue to get in. Xiamen University has an exchange relationship with Victoria University of Wellington.

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In addition, Xiamen University has an enormous amount of scenic areas, mountains and gardens to explore. A thirty minute walk up the hill and I found myself walking past cabbage patches, mango trees and goat herders. I spoke with an old local man in the Botanic Garden area, who commented on the suōluó 桫椤 (ferns) in New Zealand! Asked of his impressions of Wellington, he launched into a tirade about Falun Dafa handing out brochures on the street.

Islands 岛屿

Wellington has Matiu/Somes, Xiamen has Gulangyu 鼓浪屿. A brief but squashed ferry ride away from Xiamen Island, Gulangyu is small island home to a range of old European architecture, built by foreign powers who came to the island in the early 20th century.

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Weather was crap when I went and there were hordes and hordes of other tourists, so I didn’t love it really. Same kind of souvenir shops and snacks as the ones in Zengcuo’an. But apparently the east side of the island is much quieter and has a lovely little beach.

Change 变化

While Xiamen and Wellington share their similarities by the sea, the pace of change and development in Xiamen over the past two years has seen the quiet trading port transform into one of China’s most popular tourist destinations. Someone even claimed that last year Xiamen had more tourists than the Great Wall of China. Meanwhile in Wellington, the biggest change we saw was arguably the opening of a new fish and chip shop in Mount Victoria.

From a foreign visitor’s perspective, walking through Xiamen’s old areas and seeing the continuation of tradition of that generates around them is at the heart of the joy and charm of the city. Now that Xiamen’s stone export industry has stabilised, the development of the tourism industry is changing the face of the city.

However, it appears the local community spirit is strong. Residents around the temple near Hulishan Fort were evicted and had their homes demolished. Dozens of them have poured their compensation payouts into the renovation of the temple, with residential housing below ground. Around sixty residents are set to move back into the neighbourhood beneath the temple once completed. Brilliant.

Almost complete: two skyscrapers on the horizon, easily the tallest buildings in the southern area.
Almost complete: two skyscrapers on the horizon, easily the tallest buildings in the southern area. Set to be a luxury hotel and shopping centre.

Xiamen. Visit now before it changes forever.

This piece was made with the generous support of the Wellington-Xiamen Association. 

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A Myopic Travel Guide to Chongqing

With countless flights of endless stairs to tone those thighs and hot pot so spicy it will empty your bowels; those looking to lose weight might find a trip to Chongqing 重庆 is just the ticket.

Kiwese spent a few days in the south west mega city of Chongqing to see what’s up in a municipality population of almost 30 million people.

My first impressions of Chongqing were that it was eerie as hell. There is a spookiness about abandoned, decaying buildings in the night. The sheer amount of concrete debris and general trash that lay throughout the city was astonishing.

I guess it is worth noting that there are probably oceans of debris lying around every big city in China, concealed by walls of photoshopped blue skies and glamorous high rises, but the hilly topography of Chongqing means that you can view it from above.

Commentators from travel guides to political analysts to bloggers and international students will often say China is a land of great juxtaposition. Perhaps nowhere else can this contrast between new and old, decay and sparkle, be seen more acutely than Chongqing.

IMG_5450IMG_5452IMG_5470Meanwhile… up the road:

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Transport

Chongqing is a short two hour high speed train journey from Chengdu. From Chongqing, you can get buses and trains to loads of different places in Guizhou, Sichuan and further afield.

If you arrive by train at 12am, expect to be shuffling forward in a taxi queue for the next hour or so.
If you arrive by train at 12am, expect to be shuffling about in a taxi queue for the next hour or so.

The subway system in the city is well-planned, easy to use and just downright impressive. Chongqing subway ticket machines willingly accept wrinkled notes, unlike the unforgiving machines in Beijing, who will spit out any cash short of a crisp, clean bank note like a rude child sticking its tongue out. Humph!

Accommodation

1) TINA’S HOSTEL: If navigating your way through trash and human excrement is your kind of thing, look no further than Tina’s!

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Tina’s is nestled away in an old, decaying building off Zhong Xing Road, about five minutes from the nearest subway station.

The dorm rooms are among some of the cheapest in town, albeit cold and musty. On the other hand, the staff are nice, they sell cheap beer and Tina’s unpopularity means the Wifi speed is second to none. Good on ya, Tina.

2) YANGTZE RIVER INTERNATIONAL YOUTH HOSTEL: Like finding a needle in a haystack, or a poo among rubble, Yangtze River was difficult to find amidst Chongqing’s winding streets and hidden staircases covered in debris.

En route
En route.

While not the most ideal location, you can climb one of the narrow staircase streets, eat a bowl of noodles at a 45 degree angle and watch freight workers carrying gigantic loads across their shoulders up and down stairs three times the length of the Dixon Street steps.

Yangtze River Hostel provides a comfortable common area, a rickety fooz ball table and Chongqing Beer. The bunks are a bit tough and the nearby train line is a bit noisy, but the staff are super helpful and non-condescending when you speak Chinese.

3) GREEN FOREST HOSTEL: This is your best bet. Nice rooms, nice staff, nice location. Also known as Wa She 瓦舍. Offers a range of Chinese and Western food, taste factor somewhat lacking and subject to availability.

Walk Around and See Stuff

CIQIKOU 磁器口: Using Chongqing’s excellent subway system, one can visit this old porcelain trading hub on the Jialing River. We spent several hours wandering through the lanes and stairs of this old part of town, which while being a popular spot for tourists, has largely managed to avoid the cheesy ‘ancient town’ treatment of so many historic areas in China, see: Lijiang, Yangshuo etc. Cute coffee shops and tea houses are tucked into the laneways, while the main street caters to all sorts of street food hankerings.

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There are many different areas to explore and get lost in. Across the river was a small village, where half the buildings were set for the 拆 and the other half were still inhabited by locals.

Women burning paper for their ancestors at the foot of colourful idols in the rock. Down at the river, women scrub their clothes and ducks waddle off a fishing boat over a wooden plank. Freshly killed pork skewered on a metal rod and slung over the shoulder, sold door to door. Sausages overhang the road, bai cai straddles the window. Abandoned wrecks of old homes dissolve into ferns and leaves.

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Like many parts of Chongqing, the port area was undergoing large scale construction. Bulldozers and cranes clear land for development metres from where an elderly woman was tending to some crops. Buildings which looked as if they would collapse with a breath of wind have been marked off and left to rot.

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Eat

1) I can’t remember what this fish is called, but you should eat it.

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2) 小面 xiǎo miàn /  little noodles. Nice, cheap breakfast or snack. And everyone else seems to be eating them, so why not.

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3) 火锅 huǒ guō / hot pot. Hold onto your butts, Chongqing hotpot is renowned for being the spiciest in China! We got one with a broth in the middle to douse the flames. Feat. lotus, potato, various tofu, stomach and brain.

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Drink and Dance Excessively

坚果 NUTS LIVEHOUSE: Established in 2007, NUTS is one of the oldest livehouses in the city. While NUTS is located in the lower part of a big fashion mall surrounded by the classic tacky bar zone of every big Chinese city, the music and atmosphere is notably different taste from its neighbouring counterparts.

Offers a range of decent beers on tap as well as lethally priced 10RMB tequila shots. Pool table and good vibes dance floor.

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Public Campaigns

1) Don’t go swimming in the river. Graphic.

IMG_73072) Be a civilised traveller.

IMG_5529Fashion

1) New life mantra: Well, THE QUEEN AINT.

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2) Padded pyjama two piece. This is a hot fashion statement in Chongqing across a range of ages, men and women. No image, but yeah, padded pyjama two piece. Day or nightwear.

Favourite quotes from Chongqing

Chongqing local: “I heard that the air in New Zealand is so clean that when you blow your nose it comes out clear!!”

Chongqing local: “We call Beyonce “菜场B” on the internet, cos her clothes are like the grandmas at the vegetable market.”

Woo, Chongqing! Special thanks to Mat for being a pal and coming along.

Food for Dogs.
Food for Dogs.

 

 

Pei Pa Koa

Kiwese is certainly not qualified to be giving medical advice, but PEI PA KOA, guys.

I came down with a pretty bad illness during my recent stay in the Miao village turned tourist town of Xijiang, in South East Guizhou. To make myself feel less crappy, the period will now be referred to as my ‘week of convalescence.’

There was one thing that got me through. Pei Pa Koa. Most Canto kids will be familiar with this gluggy black liquid and it’s inimitable minty medicinal flava. Mum used to force a spoonful of it down our throats every winter, beckoning groans of “noooo, not the GLUG.”

However, my mind and throat have been changed. If you are in the zone to cough some shit up, look no further than this magic brew. Against all sane medical advice ever, I drank this shit straight out the bottle for several days, coughed and spat like a Guizhou local and got the hell out of Xijiang before I had time to look back.

My friend says it can also be served in a sliced pear…

Available at all reputable Chinese medicine stores. I bet Wah Lees has it.

 

How to Apply for a Student Visa to China 101

You just bagged a mean scholarship to 努力学习 in China, now what? Kiwese went through a load of paperwork and bureaucracy to make the process easier and less shocking for the rest of you.

Prepapre to enter the world of the big red stamp…

Being an international university student in China is great. You get to meet people from all over China and the world, experience life in a foreign place, learn the language and travel during the big break. It is a fun and valuable experience and you can preeeeetty much chill once you have the student visa.

As of Sept 2013, there are now two types of student visas:

  • X1 – for study in China for a period of more than 180 days (full academic year, two semesters)
  • X2 – for study in China for a period of less than 180 days (one semester, summer program)

You need to apply at The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China:

The Embassy has moved to 4 Halswell Street, Thorndon, Wellingtondirectly opposite the US Embassy, as the Glenmore St Embassy sits in an earthquake restrengthening slumber.

  • The Chinese Embassy is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 9am-12pm for visa applications / 2pm-4pm for visa collections.
  • Ensure you have enough time between applying and leaving for China, as it takes four working days for the Embassy to process your application, keeping in mind they are closed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends.
  • Should you need your visa to be processed within 24 hours, you will need a copy of your outgoing flight from NZ to show you are leaving within four days, plus an extra $40 fee.
  • Their website is here. The phone numbers do not work.

You will need:

1) PASSPORT + PHOTOCOPY
Enjoy passport chat in the visa queue at your university in China and have the compliments roll in.
Enjoy realising your NZ passport is prettier than everyone else’s in the visa queue.

Original passport and a photocopy of the photo page. Photocopy does not need to be JP stamped.

     2) FOREIGNER PHYSICAL EXAMINATION FORM 
                  外国人体格检查表
          Wàiguó rén tǐgé jiǎnchá biǎo
生词 starts now.
生词 starts now.

You will need to see a GP first for a check up to complete the Foreigner Physical Examination Form, then they will refer you to get a Chest X-Ray, blood test and ECG heart scan. Ensure you have enough time (and money!!) to suss this out. Attach a passport photo.

I recommend getting a Community Services Card, so you can get discounts or reimbursements with the receipts. I had a CSC for my first visa in 2011, so the costs were a big shock without one this year.

Do this first! Book ahead. Should take about 30 min. Unfortunately these costs are not covered by Student Health. All the results from your tests will be sent to your GP, who will then staple that shit together and sign it off. Boom.

Book ahead. Takes about 2 min and the results are sent to your GP, who can then attach the results and fill out the Chest X-Ray Exam box.

No need to book ahead, just walk in during their hours. The cost varies depending on what you are being tested for. It was $124 for Hep A, Hep B, Hep C, HIV and Syphilis.

  • ECG Scan @ GP – $25.00

You can book this at Student Health and have the scan performed by a nurse. It only takes about 10 min and the results are instant.

TOTAL: approx. $303


 

The alternative to getting a check up in NZ is to get one at the Visa Medical Centre during registration at your university in China. Trust me, the first time you register is overwhelming enough as it is without having to undergo a medical in Mandarin!! Do it in NZ and take a couple of JP stamped copies with you.

              3) JW201 / JW202 FORM
JW202. So. Important.
JW202. So. Important.

Provide the original and photocopy, they will give you back the original after viewing it. This comes in the mail from the Confucius Institute, the organisation that is administering the scholarship or the university you have enrolled at online.

I recommend photocopying this a couple of times and getting them JP stamped for when you get to China.

        4)  UNIVERSITY ACCEPTANCE LETTER
Sign and date both the English and Chinese sides.
Sign and date both the English and Chinese sides.

Provide the original and photocopy, they will give you back the original after viewing it. This comes in the mail from the Confucius Institute, the organisation that is administering the scholarship or the university you have enrolled at online.

I recommend photocopying this a couple of times and getting them JP stamped for when you get to China.

             5) VISA APPLICATION FORM
               中华人民共和国签证申请表
Zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó qiānzhèng shēnqǐng biǎo

Pretty straight forward. Don’t worry about the Local ID/Citizenship number. Attach a passport sized photo.

Sweet.

Then you pay $140 when you pick it up four working days (Mon, Wed, Fris) later.


NB: Advice is for New Zealand citizens in Wellington, though the documentation is the same for Auckland and Christchurch.


What do I do when I arrive in China though?

K. So the process continues once you get to China. Note that the visa the Embassy give you in Wellington is only valid for 30 days once you arrive in China and it is strictly single entry!! So don’t go planning any crazy overseas travel outside of China after entering on your student visa, cos chances are, you will not be able to re-enter!

You will apply for a Residence Permit with your university during the registration week leading up to the first day of semester. This process MUST be done with university registration and fee payment. THUS it would be wise not to arrive in China more than 30 days before the registration period at your university, otherwise you will risk overstaying your visa and facing some serious shit!

When you first arrive in China, you are required to register your address within 24 hours. There are massive fines if you do not do this. Registering your address will be taken care of automatically if you register to live in the dorm (most likely situation if you are a scholarship student) and they will give you this slip:

PLEASE HOLD ONTO THIS.
PLEASE HOLD ONTO THIS!!!

If you are planning on staying with a friend or at a private residence upon arrival in China, you will need to register your address yourself. There is some info about doing that here, though I haven’t done it myself before. Will update this for you guys in September!

Registration Week is absolutely manic. I recommend taking someone with good Chinese to help you. During registration, you will apply for renewing your visa which requires:

  • filling out a simple form
  • handing over your passport to the university’s visa office for a couple of weeks
  • Registration Form of Temporary Residence (pictured above)
  • a couple of passport photos
  • an additional fee of around 200RMB
All of that, for this. This is what you ultimately want.
All of that, for this. This is what you ultimately want.

Good luck! 加油!This information is current as of July 2014! Arm yourself with enough passport photos and certified photocopies. It is a whole raft of paperwork, head scratching and running around like you are doing an orienteering mission at school camp, but once it is done it is DONE.

Happy to try and answer any questions.

x

New Love for Litang

An entry from a travel blog about a two-month long backpacking trip around Shaanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan and Hainan during the Chinese summer.

8am: Feeling a little bit stuck in a rut, I know that once I leave this place the Tibetan vibe will gradually fall away as I move south, but it is imminent and essential for me to do so (dwindling funds, altitude etc). However, Litang is not really inspiring me. It’s a rough round the edges town, dirty and trying hard to be a bit more modern… What will the day hold?

The day my perspective on Litang completely changed.

The Litang Horse Festival rumour mill was churning out different tales each day, this was the day it was allegedly meant to ‘restart,’ but of course, it did not. I’d been in daily contact with Dan (the US photographer I met in Kangding) via Weixin [WeChat]. He had gone up north to check out Ganzi for a few days and wait for the festival. There was an uncertainty in the air, a tension. The amount of military vehicles rolling round the dirt roads of the town seemed to drown out the small number of chilled residents, most of whom would pass the mornings and afternoons laxing streetside, rolling prayer beads methodically around their fingers. I relayed to Dan that Meduk the purple-contact lensed Tibetan hostel owner said it wouldn’t be on this year, but also mentioned it may start the 10th or 11th… shén me yī sì?? [什么意思, what does it mean??] I didn’t have that much time to wait around for it. Dan, on the other hand, said it was great for him, as the road back from Ganzi to Litang had crumbled apart and he was having to head all the way back to Kangding, then back over that huge rocky road to Litang.

In addition to the Tibetan mother tongue of the masses, I discovered differences in the Mandarin used in Garze. What I knew to be a plate of boiled dumplings, [水饺, shǔijiǎo], was always served as a spicy dumpling soup. The 8th. Needed to be in Lijiiang, Yunnan by the 14th. Early morning characters floated past the little restaurant and as I pondered whether to stay or go, an old man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth meticulously arranged several long strings of mushrooms on a wooden chair outside the front door of the restaurant, angling them in the optimum position for drying. Stay.

Met the Aussie guys in the lobby in the middle of Joel’s financial crisis. There are no international ATMs in Garze, apart from one in Kangding. They were the second victims of this technological deficiency that I’d met in the lobby during my time at Potala Inn, and like the French couple before them, they had to scrape together their remaining cash to buy bus tickets to Kangding before being stranded cashless up in the mountains.

Warmly welcomed the return of my camera battery from a French dude that had come from Tagong and set out to explore the town on foot. The dirt backroad to the monastery was full of ‘tashi delek!’ [བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།] greetings from old Tibetans with their flap hats and eternally spinning hand held prayer wheels, big pigs in rubbished rivers, squashed square structures adorned with mantra flags and sunshine bursting through the rapidly retreating clouds. Lovely, warm and fascinating people. I climbed through a rectangular gap in a blood red wall topped with golden ornaments and clambered up a dirt hill, navigating around a small maze of narrow paths that stemmed off to the communities of stone brick houses, eventually reaching a quiet street that led to the monastery. It must have been a particular time for refreshing and repainting as teams armed with paintbrushes and durries created fresh murals and several gold statues were being resprayed in the cool air outside. At the front entrance to the monastery area, I encountered Roland the Austrian guy from my dorm and a German couple. I mentioned that I would be walking out of the town down past the Gold Arch (not McDonalds) in search of a dance and biǎoyǎn [表演, performance] in some tents that Meduk had vaguely mentioned to me in Mandarin and English. Down the back streets to the main town, I bought a banana from a wonky eyed lady in a snack shack and threw the peel to a ravenous hog by the grassy waterway. Saw a crew of scruffy young kids hatching a plot to frighten a a pack of stray dogs lying on a grassy plain; sneaking out from behind a large white prayer statue, firing an array of stick and rock ammunition then fleeing away with laughter as the barking dogs chased after them in revenge. A game tailored to their environment, kids can find fun in any situation. The kids out here are fearless!

Good Morning

The main drag of Litang is easily identifiable, lined with a community shops of all genres; curtains, windows, clothing, CDs, kitchen items, Buddhist goods, linen, raw meat and more, hoards of motorcycles and their owners, knick-knacks, prayer beads, doorways revealing handcrafted metals being clunked away at with years of experience (feat. large hammers on tiny metal targets between fingers, heavy machinery sending off sparks near the seated, sandal wearing machine operators), chatterbox ladies on stools out the front doing cross stitch, face masked women frying sausages in oil, stray dogs stretched out on the footpath having a nap, children playing with old car tyres, mamas with vegetable baskets on their backs and babies on their fronts, leather jacketed men in cowboy hats atop long hair braids all sitting on the steps, rolling their beads over their hands and baring their golden teeth. Seeing dudes who look like they are from another world or another era of time, mashing away at the keypads on their cellphones in China Mobile or queuing up at China Post. Military vehicles rolled through. A soldier or two trot down the footpath.

Stopped at the local gompa which elegantly peeked out from behind its stone walls to glorious effect amidst the gravel, rubbish and dogs along the street, inhabited by truly delightful people both inside the gate and out. I greeted the monk who sat by the dilapidated stone arch and his smile radiated such a warmth that I felt as if I’d just been struck by a rainbow beam. Once inside, the vibe was woah. I got my camera out and was immediately approached by two great gals who then leant on my shoulders to look at the photos on the screen, which made it feel like we were friends within the space of about four seconds flat. They were both dressed in very unique clothing, one had a tall yellow headdress and they both wore brightly coloured, ornately embroidered, long wrap-around dresses. We chat for a little while, by which stage several other smiley local gompa goers had gathered around to check out my curious foreignness too, allowing me to take some great close ups and receive a dozen more ‘tashi delek’! A hunchbacked lady gestured for me to follow her around the gompa, a daily ritual where they circulate through the square archways several times and spin the small wooden prayer wheels whilst chanting as they see fit. The hardcore oldies were simultaneously spinning the gompa prayer wheels with the right hand and spinning their hand held ones in the left. The gompa was also home to the ‘world’s biggest prayer wheel,’ which had several people of different ages and sizes rotating it around together, an impressive sight. This was upstaged by the actual world’s biggest prayer wheel in Shangri La, but who’s gonna go kill their buzz? Old, leather skinned men in camo green robes pulled over white shirts accessorized with the mandatory beads and walking sticks. One lovely old bloke out the front of the gompa and I spoke about family history for a while, then he agreed to have his photo taken, laughing and quickly plopping his hat back on his balding head, despite my reassurances that regardless he looked “hěn shuài!” [很帅, handsome].

Litang, Garze, Sichuan

Litang, Garze, Sichuan

The shops began to gradually disappear as I trekked further on down the road, locals would wave from their cars and bystanders would look at me with intrigue. It was a real sign of Litang’s foreignness from China, that even a Chinese-looking girl like me is a somewhat unusual sight. I continued walking down the road until the city fell away, paths became dirt and the only shops were small fànguǎn [饭馆, restaurants] based around a single wok on a gas element, a few steel manufacturing sheds and motorcycle garages and the vast grasslands stretching out towards the mountains ahead. Bought some aqua and a pack of guazi from a small xiǎomàibù [小卖部, kiosk, dairy, usually a sleeping lady behind a counter full of snacks and drinks] and had my walking directions affirmed. An array of vehicles hooned down the road; motorcycles with brightly patterned mudguard tails and long haired Tibetan men, military tanks, three wheeled carts that looked like they might putt to a halt at any moment and pick up trucks with full families perched on the back. Altitude and dehydration were starting to rear their heads as the robed monk that had been walking ahead of me for about half an hour hitched a ride on the back of a scooter with two other monks, widely smiling at me over his shoulder as they sped off with a plume of dust. An amicable tractor full of dark skinned, hat clad, bead rolling men implored me to jump on the back, but I was too slow to catch on and they chugged away into the distance. Soon after, a monk in a 4WD pulled up and gave me a ride the rest of the way down the road. He was softly spoken and had a calming nature about him through the ruminative look across his face and smooth driving style. I asked where he was going, he replied “suíbiàn guàng yī guàng” [随便逛一逛, casually roaming around]. Epic. Answer. Yo. I was speechless with his effortlessly awesome nature and mad sense of peace. I excessively thanked him as he dropped me off by a track which winded down through the grasslands towards a cluster of white tents. Young dudes piled on noisy motorbikes hooned around the fields, while a masked, hatted woman started walking and chatting with me and accompanied me right into the centre of the tents.

Wow.

The sheer mass of people there around a large frameless umbrella pagoda tent thing watching the spectacle style performance, starring a group of performers with long haired wigs and fur costumes. Cross legged monks lined the ground seats on one side, the other sides packed with local nomads, Tibetans, children, oldies with prayer wheels; on rugs, plastic stools, benches or standing on the back of motorbikes, trailors and carts. The performance was all in Tibetan and had a lot of slapstick gags, each time one of the fur clad actors fell over, kicked another or teased an audience member, the crowd roared with laughter from the edges. The children were there by the dozens, so super cute, some with traditional clothes, some with qípáo [旗袍, cheongsam] covered in Apple logos, some scruffier than other, all endearing, curious and warm-hearted. An old lady handed me a yóutiáo [油条, fried breadstick] and I chilled with her, two kiddies and their mama having lunch sitting in the back of a cart, the conversation mainly smiles and nods from both sides, as they didn’t really speak Mandarin.

Rambled around the perimeter of the performance, enjoyed some local snacks from people in carts and got invited into the monk area which had Dalai Lama portraits and offerings of Coke, Sprite and Fanta. Sat quietly with some friendly old monks on the grass outside their prayer tent and drank one of the Fantas that had been thrust into my hand by a chatty monk. Sat with a family by their motorbikes and the gals leaned over to look at my photos. The baba was a champ – long black hair pushed to the side with a bandana, gold teeth and smooth shades. Ate some round, sweet bread balls on a stick with them, which I had just purchased from a jolly fat lady in a three-wheeler.

Grannies on the grass chatting over some noodles, kids doing cartwheels, monks lying beneath umbrellas, lads and beers, families chilling, big smiles and lots of ‘tashi delek!’ Granny on a brick cellphone with a baby in a basket. Newborn baby with mama and papa, all walks of life were here to enjoy the festivities. Though a completely different visual and aural experience than I’ve ever experienced, the prevailing concept of VIBE was the same. Garze’s version of (what once was) Wellington’s One Love. Outdoor get together of the community to share in the enjoyment of local performance, food and company.

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I spotted Roland and we had some more bread ball sticks on the grass with Mark and Shavaughn a pair of funny peeps from the UK and Ireland who had randomly come across this event. Loads of kids came and hung out with us, getting particularly excited when we let them use our cameras to take photos. They identified all the people as they scrolled through my photos, “zhe shǐ wǒ de péngyǒu, zhe shǐ wǒ péngyǒu de dìdì, zhe shǐ wǒ jiejie… [这是我的朋友,这是我朋友的弟弟,这是我姐姐的朋友, that’s my friend, that’s my friend’s little brother, that’s my sister’s friend] etc. One little dude asked if he could take my camera right into the performance to take photos. At first I said no, then I said “OK, wǔ fēnzhōng” [只有五分钟, just five minutes]. He ran away and disappeared excitedly into the thick of the crowd. About three or four minutes later, I was like “….hold up. WHAT did I just do?!” The crew was like “yo, did you just give your large, expensive camera to a small nomadic child?” I leapt to my feet and went around looking for him, ducking in and out of the layers of people around the performance gazebo (for lack of a more accurate word), but to no avail. Mentality was not good: Camera, gone. Photos, gone. Flashback to when my camera was stolen from a hostel in Ibiza and I lost all the photos of Becky and I with Shapeshifter and Tiki in backstreet Digbeth, Birmingham 2009. Noooo. Upon returning back to the original spot, the kid came running up to me looking as distressed as I was, “nǐ qù nǎr?! wǒ zhào bú dào nǐ!” [你去哪儿?! 我找不到你! Where did you go?! I couldn’t find you!]

Skux
Skux

The harsh sun and thin air tiring us out, we decided to trek back to the hostel over the lumpy grasslands. Spotted a contemplative red-robed figure sitting on the bank of a stream, it was the chill monk who had given me a ride! I asked him what he was up to, he said just thinking and observing. So. Cool. While he was friendly and helpful, he never smiled. We all trekked back across to the main road, traversing over streams, barbed wires and yak turds. It was a long walk all the way back to the Potala Inn, so I was glad to have Roland as company. Only 18-years-old, he just finished high school and was traveling before having to complete the mandatory year of community service in Austria. He chose to be a kindergarten teacher instead of joining the armed forces.

Collapsing back on my dorm bed, I could hear the sound of Daniel’s dombra from the bar/marae bedroom next door so went to go debrief of the days events. He spoke enthusiastically about how he had stumbled across a Tibetan wedding down a random street —- spontaneous and free-spirited, he offered to take us there! 

Down a few small side streets, in a two-story building marked by prayer flags, the party rolled on! The ground floor’s dancing festivities of the daytime had wrapped up, but still contained dozens of local people smiling, chilling and imploring us to go upstairs where the music and chanting was coming from. WOOAH. The entire community must’ve been there, some in traditional dresses, others in casual vests, all joyful. The place was packed with people, long banquet tables abundant with food, snacks, drinks, alcohol and even cigarettes. Whether everyone actually knew the bride or groom is another question, one that is seemingly irrelevant. Some old ladies gestured for us to sit with them at one of the long benches stretching along the tables, another repeating “sit down! sit down!” in English while pushing us towards the food. Three bowls of yak dumplings were instantaneously presented to us by an unknown woman and the older lady opposite implored us to indulge in the array of unidentifiable meats and dishes in the centre of the table. This was all an incredible sensory overload of new experience and buzzy shit going on. The atmosphere was HUGE. Singing and chanting of Tibetan mantras came from each table, usually led by the group of men circling around and forcing seated men to skull full beers or bottles of water. An all day and night affair, the wedding continued to vibe with high energy, unlike Kiwi weddings which generally result in everyone hammered and dancing to Abba with their uncles by 10pm. Sculling a bottle of water was not considered any less of a feat than sculling a beer, everyone cheering and yelling during and after the ritual of each beverage. Daniel was handed a beer and surrounded by the men, who began to chant and clap him on with huge energy. The New Zealander in me emerged at the sight of a beer sculling challenge and I too was cheering him on with vim and vigour. I love Tibetans. The phrase ‘tashi delek!’ seems to extend beyond just a greeting, and from what I gathered is used freely for ‘cheers!’ ‘nice one!’ and generally just ‘woohoo!’ Traditional songs echoing throughout, content old ladies lining the benches and swaying to the sound, children running around and dancing, cups being filled, noodles passed to and fro. A lady planted her 9-year-old qípáo clad daughter over to speak English with us, a conversation which became far more natural and comfortable once her mother had floated off to socialise. Her older sister and then her twin sister also came to chat with us, their English at an impressive level considering their low exposure. The elder sister insisted on accompanying me to the toilet, a smelly little room of ladies collectively squatting over a central tiled trough, some facing each other and chatting. She continued to speak English to me as I hovered over the trough. Later on, three friendly French brothers and sisters were spouted into the room like water from a whale’s blowhole, proceeding to heartily thrash the paper cup of cigarettes on the table.

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One of the most bizarre experiences of my life came when we were invited to the bride and groom’s side room which was full of loud, enthused, not necessarily drunk Tibetans, who pulled us in through the crowds towards the happy couple at the back. They had heard word of some foreigners in the main room and requested that we sing them a song in English. Considering our group consisted of NZ, Austria, Israel and France, our repertoire was fairly limited. The room quietened as we were presented to the bride and groom. We then sung the first two verses of Jingle Bells, the only song we could all sing together with some degree of fluency, which was greeted with huge applause from the wildly excited wedding guests and the couple as well. We tashi delek-ed the happy couple, were pushed aside by another group who wanted to sing to them and each had a fresh beer thrust into our hands. The festivities continued throughout the typically Litang power cut that came mid-evening, the throngs of people still filling the entire space, squashing onto chairs and squeezing into the bride and groom’s side room. I started an ‘olaay olay olay olaaaaay’ chant, which was picked up by a cute old woman who I was sitting back to back with on the bench, she was VERY into it hahaha!! After several beers, a shot of báijiǔ, [白酒, white liquor, 50%alc, often compared with hot lava] various meats, spicy noodles, dried sweet crackers, an apple, a bowl of yak dumplings and a mountain of guazi, we returned back to the hostel, high on Litang. ♦