China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: I've been through the desert on a bike with no name
Date: Mon, 21 Sep 1998 10:42:13 -0700

20:20 Some hotel, Hodux; Xinjiang--China :: SA 19 SEP 98
08:49 Baiyinqualeng Hotel, Korla; Xinjiang--China MO 21 SEP 98

Desert. The Great Deceiver. Time withers, evaporates. Dwindling scale. Distances unclosing. Sun high in a sky blue, unharried by clouds; ubiquitous camel thorn wears its muted grey-green as always while temperatures evaporate water in minutes or freeze it in seconds.

I pedal. Hear my own breath. Chain glides across steel teeth. Humming tires over uneven tarmac. See for 40km, road undulating over the fans spreading from mountainous rock, telephone poles in perfect periodicity: 50 meters, countless 50 meters. White kilometer markers, like grave stones, one, two, three...five. More but I cannot make them out. The sun, the sun. All under the sun. Today, the air is quiet but for my own disturbance of it, and cool against the sun's burdensome heat.

And I pedal, intent on a distant horizon unclosing. Look away. Look away to the mountains. Look away to the randomly uniform clumps of green, to the randomly uniform distribution of pebbles and stone spread, to the smoothly curved surface carved, here and there, with shallow, snaking dry rivulets by the infrequent visit of rushing water.

The rains come, as they did here two days ago, overrunning mankind's defenses to cut through his highways and cast down his power lines. The wind carries the sand to bury our abandoned settlements, outposts in an indifferent land. When we erect four walls and a roof, irrigate lushness with fresh water from deep under the sand, we build mirages in an enduring landscape. The mirage--the illusion--lingers until the pumps fail, until the moving desert clogs wells and canals. A man made oasis is a spell, and maintaining the illusion exacts its toll on the spell caster.

The power of the desert seems its perfect unshakeability, its resilience, its immutability. The sands shift but the desert remains the same. "Here I am," it says. "Challenge me." And I do. Swallowed up in its immensity, I cross it. I look up, again, and that distant horizon has drawn a little nearer, perceptibly nearer. I look away again. Not at the desert around me, but into the desert's character.

I see the earth moving, plate against plate, pressing, pressing, pressing. At the convergence a roiling crust trembles and groans. Upthrust. Rock reaching for altitudes of ice.

I see the rains, the wind, the seasons. Time renders rock unto sand. On the jagged peaks the rain scours down, or freezes in cracks, widening them to fissures, destabilizing cliff sides. From the crumbling valleys the rain-flushed debris spreads conically over the alluvial fans, over the undulating terrain over which the roadway rises and subsides.

The desert moves. Is always moving. Changes. Always changing. Our trivial perception of time sees the cataclysms but not the flow. The mighty downpour--so destructive of our achievements, so disruptive to our effort to domesticate a thankless land--swirls in desert-time like a grain of sand across the dune.

One. Small. Event.

I cycle past an earth mover spewing diesel fumes into the perfect blue sky. It pushes mounds of sand into the gaps where rushing water overran the bulwarks. We can shore up our defenses today, maintain the spell for a time. But someday we will probably stop. And the desert, probably, will not.

When I look up again I notice the horizon has become a crest, a discernible hilltop just two kilometer markers away. The power line rises to it, over it, then falls away to disappear behind. Pedaling, pedaling. I rise to the crest. Each time the same excitement, though I know The Great Deceiver awaits me on the other side.

Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.

The more you know,
the less you understand.

The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 47
trans. Stephen Mitchell