A few days in Zhangye张掖, the friendly and attractive city in western Gansu province, is best way to get to know this remote area of China. Zhangye is only a three to four hour bus ride away from the Inner Mongolian town of Alashan Youqi, the gateway to the Badan Jarain Desert. And, as the friendly ticket lady at Youqi’s bus station had assured Adam two days ago, there are no problems getting tickets. So we swap the tickets for the 15.00 bus which the Badain Jaran travel agency had erroneously bought us, and hop on the 8.30 one instead.
The bus starts out half-empty, but doesn’t stay that way for long. This is still peasant country, where local people prefer to line up by the road side with their sacks and bundles, waiting for the bus to pick them up, rather than make their way to the bus station. The main difference with 20 years ago is that most of the transactions, involving pick- ups and drop- offs, are arranged on mobile phones these days.
The other thing that takes us back into time is the speed of the ride; or rather, the lack of it. In fact, we have seldom come across a driver less in a hurry. Though we normally want our buses to go slowly and carefully, ever fearful of accidents, even we think that this guy could speed up a bit.
Anybody who shares my love of Chinese history will find this BBC radio programme on Daoism, In our Time, presented by Melvyn Bragg, absolutely fascinating. One of the professors on the programme is one of my old professors from SOAS (The London School of Oriental and African Studies).
China, Yunnan province, 150 kilometres Northwest of Dali.
Having arrived safely in Yunlong after a long and somewhat eventful journey from Xiaguan (Dali City), we set about visiting the sights and exploring the town, which to be honest doesn’t take very long, as there is precious little to see or do.
For anybody who has been following our blog over the last few months, you will know that we were in Yushu and the surrounding area last year. It is one of the most stunning and fascinating areas of China we’ve visited.
It’s difficult to express how we feel at the moment. Sitting here in the comfort of our flat in Madrid, the catastrophe in Yushu seems a world a way, and yet so close. We can only hope that the people we met and their families have survived this tragedy.
Monasteries around Ganzi are well off the beaten track and make a great day trip if you hire a taxi. We visited 3 monasteries within a 30 kilometre radius of Ganzi: Dagei Gompa, Began Gompa, or Baigei Si, and Beri Gompa, or Baili Si (all names are approximate).
Hire a taxi to see all three in a day
In order to do this, we hired a taxi for a half day for 250 Yuan. Our driver was a friendly chap who seemed to be of mixed Chinese- Tibetan origin and could speak both Mandarin (of sorts) and Tibetan. More importantly, he seemed to get on well with everybody.
Monasteries around Ganzi: Our first stop, Dagei Gompa
Our first stop, Dagei Gompa, is about 30 kilometres back towards Manigango. The landscape along the way is glorious: lots of grazing animals, imposing mountains and small villages, their houses and walls covered in vertical beige and white stripes.
We pass quickly through Serxu Xian, the modern administrative town, 35 kilometres after the huge Serxu monastery. Our driver seems concerned that the local police may look for an excuse to fine him, just because he has Qinghai number plates.
It feels like a long drive now. Progress is brisk, as the road is paved and in reasonable condition, but in general, signs of life are few and far between; we pass a few Tibetan villages with the odd monastery.
In some places the landscape is a bit less harsh; we pass a large lake, surrounded by soft, green hills.
This book should come with a health warning: unsuitable for first-time visitors to China, for they may well decide to cancel their trip. Even old-time China-lovers, such as myself, should proceed with caution, as some of the things you’re about to read may put you off going back there forever!
Having suffered through some graphic descriptions of the unspeakable suffering, and the cruelties Chinese people inflicted upon each other during the Cultural Revolution; having shuddered at the inhumane way the death penalty is carried out and gasped at its utterly immoral connection to organ transplants, I found I had to keep repeating the words Dai Wei, the protagonist, says to his girlfriend, Tian Yi, as if they were a kind of mantra: “ ‘They aren’t evil, they’re just products of an evil system.’ ” (p. 504).
Dai Wei is in a coma; unable to move a muscle, though aware of his surroundings and with his memory intact. Through his memories, he relives his life, from his early childhood, when his father returns from a 22-year stint in a series of reform-through-labour camps, to the fatal denouement at Tiananmen Square, during which he is shot in the head. At regular intervals, Dai Wei’s attempts to return to his past are interrupted by his awareness of present events – the visits of his girlfriend or friends, his mother’s comments – or interspersed with clinical observations on the deterioration of his own body, as he is after all a Biologist.
From his family history, childhood and adolescence, with a traumatic first arrest for ‘immoral behaviour’, we move gradually to his university days, first in Guangzhou and later in Beijing. At university, Dai Wei’s political awareness, a vague feeling of anger and frustration that until then had lain dormant, is shaken when he starts reading his father’s journals from his camp days. Over time, Continue reading “Beijing Coma (北京植物人) Mǎ Jiàn (马建) A Book Review”
Big Breasts and Wide Hips 丰乳肥臀 is the second novel I’ve read by Mo Yan, the first being The Garlic Ballads天堂蒜薹之歌”. Both novels are set in Mo Yan’s native Shandong Province, in the village of Gaomi, but any similarities end there. The Garlic Ballads is a depiction of corruption in rural China in the early 1980s, a period when the old certainties of communism fade and unbridled market forces are unleashed. Big Breasts and Wide Hips is a long journey through the tumultuous history of 20th century China: it’s a saga of endless wars, revolutions and violent political persecutions; a desperate time when bayoneting Japanese soldiers, marauding Communist and Nationalist troops, famine, starvation, murderous family infighting, corruption and a whole cast of vile characters all play their part in wreaking havoc on Gaomi village.
We’ll be putting up some more material in the next few days and weeks related to the trip. The next text will be about the Sichuan and Chongqing towns of Pingle and Songji. This will be followed by more information about Yushu and the area around. We took so many photos that it is taking ages to sort through them.
Shit!’, I thought and my heart sank as the Chinese border police picked up the book and looked at it. Having just rigorously gone through all the photos on my digital camera, he was now holding a book that was still banned in China, as far as I knew. In normal times I wouldn’t have cared too much; the book would have been confiscated, the officers would have smiled apologetically, and we would have been allowed to continue… But these were not normal times: it was July 2008 and the Beijing Olympics were still in full swing. Immigration Officers were under strict orders to give any stray foreigner entering China during that time a real grilling, looking out for undercover journalists, or just anybody who might disturb those perfectly orchestrated Games. We were neither, but we were the only foreigners on the boat from Thailand to Jinghong.
The young but diligent border guard stared at the book’s black cover: the picture of the garlic bulb seemed to be throbbing and Mo Yan’s name to be glowing. I waited. Was our trip to China about to end right here in the docks of Guanlei, without even setting foot on dry land?
The Garlic Ballads is a Hobbesian tale of rural China, where life does indeed seem short, violent and brutal. Set in the 1980s in Northern China, in the aftermath of Deng Xiaoping’s famous statement, ‘Getting Rich is glorious’, the Garlic Ballads highlights the breakdown in the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the peasants. The latter, still clinging to the ideals of the revolution and age- old Chinese concepts of fair and honest leadership from officials, find themselves cheated, betrayed and even murdered by a new class of CCP leaders who scandalously grab every opportunity available to enrich themselves. Mo Yan spares no niceties in his Continue reading “The Garlic Ballads /天堂蒜薹之歌 by Mo Yan莫言 (A Book Review)”