Friday, July 11, 2014

Summer Adventure {Like the Mountains of God}

Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O LORD.
Psalm 36:5-6

We wake early, and already the sky holds promise, bright and full like a pool of liquid sapphire. I can see the mountain, the highest in Tongren, from our window and it looks so distant, and in a way, impossible with the brood of little legs that will be making the trek today. But as with most things that are formidable in life, I try not to think about all that it will require, just take the next step. So we head out to breakfast, stopping at a little hole in the wall fanguanr on the main street for our routine breakfast of doujiang and youtiao, a simple meal of fried dough sticks and soy milk. The kids eat this up like it’s Dunkin Donuts and the hot milk takes the edge off the chill in the air.

The Tibetan village halfway into the foothills where the trail for our climb begins is surrounded by terraced fields, shining in the morning light. The layers of barley and wheat cut into and carve up the mountainsides. Here and there a swath of rapeseed yellow as the sun sits like a smile against the curve of the hills.

Once again, like all ascents here it seems, the beginning is steep, curving through pastures where Yak graze and a cow is tethered to a small boy. Ryley is struggling with a twisted ankle from a few days previous. Sadie says her stomach hurts and she is reluctant from the get go, whimpering about not going on. We say a prayer, Josh and I, for the long day ahead and the sad shape we appear to be in already. I begin a long string of stories about hiking when I was a kid, and then some, trying to get the girl’s mind off her legs and lungs. It works for awhile, especially the ones about my trips and falls, or the time I stupidly failed to rope up when crossing a short ledge with a 2,000 foot drop at my side, or the time I was practically pulled up a mountain by my rock climbing friends when my skill failed to match anywhere close to theirs.

The benefit of such a steep climb is we gain height quickly, and the view is already breathtaking within minutes. I keep saying this to the kids, who are making small goals like the large boulder ahead, or that patch of grass by the Yak, and they are beginning to come around. We stop often for water and a quick bite of jerky or almonds and sometimes a few M&M’s. It is hard going, harder than any climb I would have been dragged on as a kid and though I am already so proud of their heartiness, I worry a little that we are killing any love they might have for the hills with such a challenge so young.  

We go on like this for hours, until at noon we have reached the moraine just below the summit. It is still a good bit of steep climbing left and Ari is battling altitude symptoms—cramping stomach, headache, and fatigue. We decide that I will stay at the watering hole we have reached with Quinn and Ari so the rest can hopefully summit within the next hour or so. We watch the others fade into pin size specks on the horizon, slowly pushing for the top. Ari has a few tears, feeling disappointed and a little ashamed that he can’t go on. I tell more stories, Everest stories about the greatest climbers and the world's tallest mountain and all that they pour into it, and how sometimes their bodies or the weather just don’t allow them to succeed. He has already succeeded and he seems to see that.

Quinn throws rocks into the small, muddy pool where a small group of 3 Tibetan shepherds have brought their herd of goats to graze and drink. The two boys are easily pleased by these surroundings and I vary between helping Ari find good skipping stones and running up the hill to check on the group’s progress. An hour or so later, I can see them, the tiniest black points at the peak, and I am swelling with pride. It has been an arduous, if not beautiful climb and I can hardly believe these little ones have done it.

The way down is overcast, the clouds having moved in early in the afternoon. They grace us with their protection from the heat of the sun we had begun to suffer under. These mountains, they are rife with all the pictures of realities we know in our souls and speak with our lips but cannot see, stuck as we are with nothing other than skin and bones and rock and sky. These mountains, forcing us to respect their majesty, shining with beauty that both overwhelms and inspires us, taking us to heights that offer glimpses of glory that at once make us small and insignificant, but still transport us to the heavens on their back, these mountains are like the mountains of God. The clouds part for a moment and we all watch as the hills are transfigured.

Hours later, we reach the little village at trails end and Denise and I decide to run the paths that cut down through the the winding dirt paths of earthen homes and terrace fields to the main road leading into Tongren below. We take off, I am already weary but suddenly invigorated by this throw back to train running in the mountains during my college days. The path winds and cuts and we let our legs fly, praying no ankles twist or trip in the many cracks and divots. We make it safely to the bottom, knees a wreck and ankles sore, but with happy hearts like two young schoolgirls, laughing at our fun and the look of our flushed and sweaty faces.

The boys have all gone ahead long before, their goal to run from summit to Tongren all in one leg. I worry a little, my boys are only 8 and 9 and they are tagging after two who are 13 and 15. But these boys are kind and thoughtful, and everyone assures me this will be nothing short of epic. I try not to think about the possible twists and falls that could easily happen as I navigate the steep gravel trail myself. Boyhood badges of honor and all that.

We finally meet up with the rest of the group at the home of our friend’s former baomu, Ng’Zh Euch Mo Cu. The boys are there, all smiles and a few minor scrapes on their hands and knees. Ari’s eyes are shining. Mo Cu Jie serves us what she smiles and says apologetically, is only a simple meal of noodles, but to us it is a feast. She has made a mixture of diced lamb, carrots, mushroom, and green onion with a garlic sauce and vinegar and we pour it over the noodles in generous heaps. We eat 3 bowls apiece. It is the best meal I think I have ever had.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Summer Adventure {Tibetan Town}

Into Tongren

The tall pillars of gleaming towers and congested roadways quickly give way to the long stretches of highway, bordered by the red, barren hills of deserted wasteland, the grasslands anchoring the ridges with hopeful shades of green. A few hours into our bus ride from Xining to the town of Tongren, the walls close in as we enter a gorge, winding down into the valley as the sun starts its own descent. Soon it all opens up, peaks surrounding us high above the valley floor, their ridges and bellies like the wrinkled backside of an elephant, and dry with the look of cracks in a desert floor. The valley all around us is green with the river's plenty, trees clustering and showing the telltale trail of the waters path. The fields of wheat and barley make quarters and puzzle pieced sections out of all the green, and fruit trees line the road where small fruit stands are set up here and there, piled with watermelon, apricots and nectarines.

The kids are drunk with the happiness of companionship. It is always fun to travel with friends and everyone seems to have found a buddy they can pal around with. Sadie sticks her head as close to hanging out the window as possible, and she welcomes the wind as it whips through her hair, leaving knots the size of roadkill for me to comb through later.

Tongren and its wide, arched gate welcomes us with little fanfare and no roadblocks as we gratefully enter in, having heard of some possible sensitivity the day before because of the Dalai Lama's birthday.

The hills are awash again with evenings gift of golden stupor, the whole sky beckoning for notice and a hand offered in praise, a song perhaps of worship. The hills themselves are singing their own song and it is only ever left to us if we will join in, and I wish in some ways I was not so inhibited or perhaps I just would.

Up Into the Hills

First morning waking up in Tongren. We open our eyes to a view of first light coming up behind the mountains, overlooking the city.

After breakfast, we walk up through the Tibetan quarter of town, where the original village houses stand. The road dividing the Chinese quarter from the Tibetan is a narrow, tough stretch of uphill road that appears to be dug up today, a sewer line being laid. We follow the road up behind the edge of town to where the ascent starts sharply up the near side of the ridge on this end of town. A dusty, beaten path steeply rises, and we climb, little legs and big, for the good bit of an hour til we reach the crest. Following the ridge line up, we stop at a tepee-like canopy of prayer flags. The flags are gathered here as one of the many Tibetan Buddhist "hot spots," where the belief is that the prayers are especially heard. The line of flags then continues in a long, snakelike stretch up the mountain. Each wave of the flag in the wind sends up the prayers of Buddhist scriptures printed out on the flag. 

So many prayers. So much hope to be heard.

We stop for a bit of a rest and to offer our own prayers on behalf of this town and the people we know in it. The boys all continue on to the top while we clamber down, then head to the old landlord's home for lunch.

A Tibetan Home

Around earthen walls and through narrow alleyways, the path climbs up the curve of the village slope as it hugs the base of the mountain. Each doorway in the earth walls is a beautiful, wooden arch of thick columns and intricate carvings. We enter one into a courtyard where flowers bloom in a small garden and the house surrounds us in a mixture of old, dry mud walls, piles of discarded pots, stacks of firewood, and the new renovation of pale wood paneling and floors.

The father, patriarch of this family and portly with white hair, greets us. His wife, she too round and sagging with age, opens wide her arms to us, welcoming us with hurried gestures to come sit down, rest, eat. The house is built to surround the courtyard and the rooms are spacious, some filled with the large kang heated bed and some dedicated to the the Buddha with an altar, burning incense, and rows of golden bowls for offering food. 

We enter one room lined with couches and low tables where we find large platters of dry, crumbly bread and bowls of sugar. Wan Ma Duo Jie, the Patriarch, has six grown sons. It is the wife of his youngest son who helps serve us today. She begins by filling small bowls with milk tea, which we gulp down gratefully. The feast consists of a rice dish mixed with a roasted root, nutty in flavor, and topped with Yak butter and more sugar. Ryley mutters that the roasted root reminds him too much of tarantula legs and he tries to focus on the bread and tea. Most of the children are hard put to eat much of the rice and pasty cookie dough like specialty called sampa, made by adding a powder to your milk tea, along with butter, and kneading it against the side of the cup, but they give it a valiant effort. Finally, great tubs of rich, creamy yogurt are served, alongside blows of sugar and great plates of sliced melong. the yogurt rivals any Greek brand sold in high end supermarkets in the West and we scoop it up gratefully.

Song Jie Cai Rang's wife, who has prepared this food, has a young son clinging to her legs, now and then teetering off bravely on his own to peer over the edge of the table or find a small object on the floor to play with. We talk a little, she speaks mostly Tibetan but seems to understand a little of my Chinese.

Zhou Ma, the old man's wife, sits down by my side as I try to keep an eye on the kids who are running wild in the courtyard, finding spiders with bodies the size of my knuckles and climbing the ladder to the roof. We smile and compare her long, thigh skimming black braids tied together at the ends in traditional Tibetan style, to Sadie's twin french braids. She takes my thin, long white hands into her thick, brown ones, looking them over, then searching my palms for some sort of telling sign.

As we ready to leave, Zhou Ma brings out two round, crusty loaves of bread the size of a tractor steering wheel. We laugh in delight and astonishment at such a gift. The late afternoon light is just hitting the edge of the mountain ridge high above the courtyard roof rim as we say our goodbyes. White smoke rises from the cypress leaves burning as incense in a small metal stand, and we whisper prayers in our hearts for these precious people as we walk away.

Summer Adventure {Getting There}

Our family needed to get out of the city this summer. Throughout the spring months, I prayed for some kind of trip that would be refreshing to our minds, our bodies, our souls, and would be within China, within our budget, and within the realm of something our whole family could take part in and enjoy. We pursued a couple ideas, and then this opportunity to go to Qinghai province with another family who had lived there years ago began to take shape. In the end, it was beyond what we had expected and was an answer to all that we had asked for. I wrote a little each day during our travels, but without internet could not share any of our pictures or words. The next few posts are a compilation of our time and what we experienced along the way.

The Station

We gather together, our two families with 8 children between us, at the North Train Station, like chickens lining up outside the main gate, herding and clucking in groups under the few shade awnings, pecking away at the bits of food we have brought. Tibetan ladies, their skin tanned and leathered, stroll through the crowds, hawking beaded jewelry and silver bracelets. A woman next to us helps her aging father scoop watermelon from hand to mouth, then changes his shirt as he squats on the dirty pavement, pulling a spare from her worn rice bag that doubles as luggage. As the jewelry merchants pass by, she shoos them quietly away, pointing to her baba and then to her head in a twirling motion, he's crazy.

The man to our left discusses minority dialects with his neighbor. Some he finds more difficult to understand, some he can get by with in a conversation. The Chengdu Railway Station is a rainbow of minority groups, the dress alone as colorful as a spice market. This "gateway to the west" does not disappoint with the melting pot of people it brings together. In a country where what most outsiders see is a vast sea of homogeny, we are swimming in rich pool of uniqueness, a reminder that this land teems with a billion individual souls bearing a mark known only by their Creator. Do we see them that way?

The children are a natural magnet for conversation. The woman with her father hurries to give up her small section of the shaded bench so our two littlest ones can sit down. They sit for a moment, but prefer to join their brothers in racing back and forth across the vast lot where travelers going every direction are often tripped up by these little legs, mindless of everyone and everything but reaching the finish line first.

Boarding time. We wrestle our backpacks and food bags, filled with enough to hopefully get us through the 24 hour journey ahead, through lines and more lines, finally landing in our small cabin of 6 beds, stacked three high on each side, open to the narrow hall lined with ten more identical cabins holding 6 more people each. Like chickens packed in a crate, headed to who knows where and hoping we don't lose our heads on the way.

Through the Night

Children on the train are like the Eighth Wonder of the World. They scramble from bed to bed, swinging across the rails like monkeys making a playground of the iron trunks. Quinn is a foghorn, his lungs at full tilt as he bellows about passing trains, rivers and wooded mountains to any who will listen and more often those who will not. 

The evening light is glorious, spilling over the mountain ridges with blankets of golden twilight. My favorite time of day. I am certain, as I always am that we were made to drink and be restored by scenes like these. How can the way the light falls be such a means of love? A gift of grace? It seems almost silly, the amount of power packed into the way the evening falls, but it is there and I am full willing to accept it.

Faint smells of smoke waft down the corridor, a trail of tobacco and burnt embers from the restless men standing in the passageway at the tail end of our car. Even with the smoke and the narrow, hard beds, I am happy. We all are. This means of travel is full of its own challenges... and blessings. There is no roar of jet engines that leave my head and neck throbbing, no weary ache behind the eyes. Instead, we rock with the sway of the rolling cars beneath us and watch as the scenes slowly change from concrete to countryside, to green hills, to wooded mountains, and now the barren red mounds of earth and terraced grasslands.

I sleep fitfully, watching to keep the two next to me from rolling off the bed. The wheels screech too loud and a man trolls on his phone in the midnight hours, crinkling small wrappers as he crunches away on a snack, the sound in my ears like a megaphone and frustrating my efforts to think kindly on my fellow travelers.

The morning comes, a wonder again all on it's own, bathing the window and hall in a fresh wave of glory, and I relent of my hateful thoughts and sip nice and slow and grateful on a thermos of hot coffee, ready to start again.

On the Way Through Xining

Xining is full, as all large cities in China, with the mix of ever modernizing new means of consumerism, the construction everywhere, streets heavy with traffic, the buildings rising daily to sky heights and expanding further into the horizon. Our train stops here, dropping us off in this still somewhat of a throwback, "backwater" city clearly on the edge of what was previously known as China's Siberia, the place of exile-- Qinghai Province. Previous generations have no fond memory of this mountainous, barren earthed landscape on the outer edges of this great country, and we have only dipped our toes into it's easternmost border. There are still thousands upon thousands of miles stretching far into the west.

Our traveling companions (a family of 6 who lived in this region for about 7 years until the visas of all foreigners in that area were revoked in 2008) met confused responses from many older Chinese on their announcement of plans to move to the province from their home in England. "They have no meat there," some would say, it being what they remembered from the days when political offenders had been sent to the region for re-education.

Our ultimate destination is Tongren, a Tibetan town about 3 hours drive from Xining, but first we stop in the city to see a few old friends who previously lived in Tongren. They had been a small team of foreigners doing medical and language work. Some of these friends have since moved on, returning to their home countries after the visas were revoked 5 years ago, but a few have relocated to the larger city of Xining and continue to carry out their work there.

One family has opened a successful coffee roasting and cafe business, which began with the purchase of a small chestnut roaster while they lived in a Tibetan home in Tongren. Now it boasts several locations in Xining and Lhasa and is supplying beans to cafes all over China. We stop for a tour of their quaint factory and eat in their home, where their 5 children romp with ours, playing soccer in the street and eating plates of fresh melon and homemade cookies. They are clearly made for this work, speaking fluent Chinese, Tibetan, and Spanish, and making friendships and a home dripping with hospitality with an ease I can't comprehend.

The next day we lunch with a couple who work as doctors in the local Red Cross Hospital. They are Swiss, speaking German as their native language, conversing with us in English, but carry out their work in Chinese, so they often stop to ask one another terms, and the whole triangle of a brilliant mess in their brains is not only impressive, but absolutely entertaining to watch. The wife is an obstetrician who comes to lunch straight from a string of deliveries. Her face looks tense and drawn when she arrives and though she slips easily into conversation about family and recent events, I can tell she is troubled. When we ask, she tells us her last appointment was with a woman 36 weeks pregnant, who in recent weeks just learned that her baby has Spina Bifida. At the appointment today, the woman has made it clear her decision is to end the pregnancy. Our friend and her husband will talk with the mother again later in the afternoon, and it weighs on all our minds.

We sleep in a simple room at the Lete Hostel, where too many travelers hog the bathroom and we are serenaded to sleep by a man down the hall singing along with his headphones at the top of his lungs. But we all have our own bed and for tonight it is enough. Tomorrow, we head to Tongren.