A one horse town -- without
05 Sep 1998 06:43:26 -0700
Hotel (Binguan), Liuyuan; Gansu--China :: FR 04 SEP 98
Liuyuan, on the Lanzhou-Urumqi railway line, is the
jumping- off point for Dunhuang. It's a forlorn-looking one-horse town
-- without the horse. You may want to visit the local karaoke to see if
you can cheer up the Chinese.
I walked up a hillside loosely but wholly encrusted with sharp
black stones, skittling and crunching underfoot. Atop it, a computer-generated
landscape of mathematical curves, complex and perfect, inorganic yet alive.
Stone and air, earth and water, erosion and time. The sun's last breath
spent igniting the haze clinging in the hollows of the low bare hills
which rise to small peaks in the distance. The smoothness of hillside's
curving interplay disguises the rough, unfriendly surface I kick up. A
caption comes to mind, "Artist's Concept," as accompanying images of other
fantastic, otherworldly landscapes.
Behind me the roadway rounds an outcropping of hills, black
as the thin scattering rock it slides through. White meter markers line
its path, upright and brilliant in the sun's final rays. I know where
it leads, Liuyuan. There, in the distance. Not nestled, too comfortable
an image. No. Dug in. And yet, comfortably so. A city in the distance,
black portal windows in a wide expanse of sun-warmed white-wash like aged
ivory, again sunlight's magic late illumination. In the ebony hills an
ivory city. Liuyuan.
Memories recorded on film, I scramble back down the hillside
and cycle between the radiant white markers until the sun slips below
the ebony escarpment to the west. The final five kilometers mimic the
terrain we have doggedly pedaled all afternoon, a climb just steep enough
to be arduous. Tired long ago. Soon the reserve tank. Through the barren
industrial yards. 8PM, everyone at home. The edge of town, half-lived-in,
half-worked-in, half in ruins. Forlorn-looking, yes. I see through crumbling
walls, and smell the grease and oil and uncatalogueable grime staining
the roadway. Dismal even. Like the black, coarse stone encrusting the
graceful hills? Children, ragamuffins, play in the side-streets. But still
two kilometers to 'town'.
Gradually, perceptibly, a town emerges. White tile hotels and
banks, white-wash apartment blocks; a little worn, a little coarse. Not
the ivory promised by the setting sun, and the treeless streets feel barren
in comparison to the oasis towns I've grown accustomed to. But I think
there is not here an encrusting of jagged black rock, not a town without
horses, or at least, not a one-horse town without a single horse.
When I stop in front of a white-tiled hotel, to wait for Emma
and suss out the guidebooks, I draw the same kind of curious crowd of
Chinese I always draw. (Emma finds me by looking for these tightly grouped,
circular throngs.) They seem not so in need of cheering up. A vision in
white cotton, ankle length skirt and frilled, feminine blouse drawn tight
to her narrow waist. Raven hair. Ebony flows amidst the ivory. A friend
stands behind her, shouts, "Hello," then ducks leaving the vision to face
my searching eyes. Giggles from the concealed. Ebony, ivory and a red-rose
blush. No, no cheering up here.
We spend the night there, and the next day. Some nice meals.
Some pleasant people, curious, engaging, who complement my ridiculously
narrow chinese. On a late-afternoon walk I discover the tree-lined avenue,
notice for the first time the newness of the train station, the marvellous
mural of Apsara's--Buddhist wingless angels found in the cave grotto murals
of the Silk Road--above its main hall. I find the town park with its neat
rows of willow and poplar, concrete walkways and planters, exuberant purple
flowers. Yes, the fountains are disused, carnival rides rusted to a standstill,
but rising above these are three small hills, stone encrusted, at the
top of two are gazebos and on the third a pagoda.
I climb the tallest and am again in the valley of the gentle
hills with ragged skin. I am on an ebony hill in an ivory town. The sun
slides well past zenith, creeps under gazebo eaves, and a wind kicks up
out of the north west. Trains arrive from the east, with passengers or
cargo or carloads of minerals. Below me, in the park, children on their
way home from school run back and forth across a suspension bridge, delighting
in the clangy racket as the metal runway clatters and clanks underfoot.
This is no tourist destination. It is a small, busy, virile
town of subtle charm like so many other small, busy, virile towns. You
will never discover the charms if you arrive on the train and depart on
the next bus.
Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?
If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.
Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.