China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: If a camel is a horse designed by committee...?
Date: Fri, 11 Sep 1998 23:10:31 -0700

6:10 The stars are my ceiling, Hami/Turpan; Xinjiang--China :: FR 11 SEP 98

If a committee designing a horse gets you a camel, what does a committee of camels get you?

Last night I camped in a low, narrow valley spurring off the Tianshan, the Heavenly Mountains. Lovely location overlooking the Hami Pendi (Hami Basin) below from my roofless, broken-walled abandoned building amidst the spiny grass. While preparing dinner, a...what do you call a bunch of camels?...a committee of camels plodded its way along the eastern ridge. Slowly. In the gathering twilight they'd stop to find something nibbly on the nearly barren ridgetop, then plod onward a few steps to the next nibbly. Sometimes clumping up, other times stretched out in a long line. Shame. Light too low for a photograph.

By now I'm munching away on the tangmian (noodle soup) cobbled together from dried mushrooms Em and I bought back in Gansu nearly three weeks ago and the left overs from spicy mutton shish-kebabs we couldn't finish last night in Hami. Delicious and fulfulling after a hard day's ride. The light's going fast, even for human eyes, but I can still make out the camels clearly against the backdrop of twilight sky. Perhaps it's my imagination but it seems two or three at the rear face directly my way. Hard to tell from half a kilometer away, as I clink my spoon against the bottom of the pot again.

The two at the rear plod off to the head of the line, a little more quickly than usual. Maybe it's me they're interested in, or maybe someone has just realized it's about to get dark and a narrow ridgeline is no place to spend the night. The two from the rear confer with the two or three at the front for a bit before all nine gather together. A couple quickly lose interest and meander off, finding nibblies here and there while the remaining committee confers.

After a bit, two begin plodding off in the original direction, but the committee stands firm and these two don't go far before turning back. The conference continues. It must be getting heated as the two disinterested camels rejoin the group. After a time, another two of the camels break off and head in the other direction, back up the ridge. Fifty meters along, they begin cutting down the steep sides into the valley.

The remainder of the committee looks on. I make up dialog for them.

Fools errand!
What do they think they're doing?
It's too steep.
They'll fall to the bottom and die.
I dunno....
Well if you 'dunno' why don't you join them?
'I dunno' sidles a few yards from the group. A few yards more. A few more. Cuts down the trail blazed by the other two.
Fools errand!
You know, they are making good time.
Oh, come on. Look! It gets steeper!
Well, yes, but I see where they're headed. It's possible I think.
Oh, fine Mr. 'Yes!' Man. Listen, why don't you two just mosey along.
I think we will.
And they do.

The leaders are a good hundred meters along, but they seem to be having an a discussion about route. One picks a high road, the other a low one. I hear some rock skittling underfoot.

There! See it's too steep!
Fool's errand!
Oh, will you find something else to say?!
Oh, not another one!
'Fool's Errand' and the second Yes Man sidle off, leaving one recalcitrant camel standing alone on the ridge line. Along with Too Steep.
Hah! You'll never make it!
It's too steep!
Yes. It's too steep.
They'll never make it.
That's what I keep saying.

You know. They are making good progress.
In fact, the head of the line is in some consternation about route. Camels have split into two camps: high and low. There's snorting, and more stone skittling.
Boy! This was a dumb idea!
Yeah. Was it yours or mine?
Can't remember.
Can't go back now.
Nope. Too much face to lose.
Yep. How's it looking your way.
Kinda sketchy. You?
'Bout the same.
Hmmm. Whoa!
Careful down there.
I'm more worried about you up there.
Keep worrying.
How's the committee?
Hard to tell, but I think the whole group's in except...
No, let me guess: Royal Highness and Scaredy Cat.
Good guess.
Well, if we don't get down from here, won't they be lordly!
By now all the camels, except two, are clinging to the ridge side. Stopped dead in their tracks. There's snorting and skittling, not much room to maneuver.
What are those guys doing up there?
I think they're asking themselves the same question.
Oh, will you stop it?!
And you too!
I guess we gotta follow them no matter what now.
Yep. Too steep here to turn around.
Yep. Don't like the idea of trying to back up.
Nope. Gettin' dark fast too.
The two at the front must do something of a proverbial coin flip. They pick a route, and pick their way down it amidst much snorting.
This was your idea!
I thought you couldn't remember?!
My recollection has improved.
The rest of the group follows even the final two camels alone on the ridgetop, in obvious disgust.
Oh, great, now we're all going to die!
Will you stay close? It's sooo steep!
Oh, bother.
Sunrise now. Time to pack up and depart.

True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.

True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.

The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 45
trans. Stephen Mitchell