I swear I’ve tried to write this afternoon. But the three kittens at Charley Jhong’s Guest House, in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, won’t let me.
First they jumped onto the table and demanded food, though I have nothing but fruit and crackers. I gave them crackers, which they practically bit my hand off to get. Back at my computer, I barely had time to check the baseball scores when the larger orange one jumped on my lap and started playing with the string from my hoodie. After a brief post-play tongue bath, she kneaded my thighs with her claws and settled down for an afternoon nap. The other two are sleeping on a nearby bed, with one eye half open should I offer more food.
Outside my room – a 5-bed dorm – is an open courtyard surrounded by a covered walkway (I know there’s a technical term for this, but the name escapes me at the moment). There’s no one about (other than the cats); the guest house is in a quiet apricot grove outside town and adjacent to the famous sand dunes near by – I’m near the start of the old Silk Road. It’s a perfect, relaxing environment to write. Except, as I said, for the cats.
Karly and I arrived here from Xiahe a few days ago. I needed to *stop* for a few days, to let my slow-moving consciousness catch up with my ever-migrating body. She was supposed to try to arrange a multi-day camel trek for herself, to keep herself occupied while I wrote. Instead, she has caught my laziness – at the moment she’s in a cafe in town making pretend to study her Mongolian language book.
And I’m making pretend to write, using cats as an excuse for my failure.
Xiahe was like seeing a little piece of Tibet without going through the extreme hassle and expense of actually going to Tibet. (I could go into a long, boring digression on why I’ve chosen to avoid Tibet. But I don’t feel like it.)
There was no breathtaking mountain scenery, but the town does boast one of the top Tibetan Buddhist monateries (Labrang Monastery) and attracts plenty of colorfully dressed Tibetan pilgrims.
Beyond the monastery visit, it was interesting to witness the progressive Han-ification of a non-Han Chinese town. To explain: The Chinese government “unifies” the parts of the country dominated by ethnic groups (the Uigurs in the west, the Tibetans in the south and west, etc.) by enticing (or forcing?) Han Chinese to settle there. It’s an ethnic power play as well as a consolidation of control over land and resources. Just as Siberians and Russian Far Easterners say “Moscow is far away…” so do Chinese southerners and westerners say, “Beijing is far away…”
The process in Xiahe is just beginning. Along the main street, the old wooden houses are gone and giant, modern brick buildings are just going up along the half-paved sidewalks. There’s a military outpost – we saw impossibly young recruits training in full riot gear. But Xiahe is still a sleepy town. Its streets are colored with bald monks in wine-colored robes; Tibetan cowgirls in traditional bright wool chupa and striped aprons, their long ebony braids tied together with ribbons; and Tibetan cowboys dressed in what looked like Mongolian dels, riding Chinese motorbikes down the main drag. Tibetans dominate the western part of town, near the monastery. The eastern part, near the bus station, is where the Han Chinese seem to live, alongside the Muslims. (We think they’re Hui Chinese, but couldn’t find out.)
The monastery itself is colorful and old – it was founded in the early 18th century. The air smells of incense and brown coal. Our tour guide was a chubby, cheerful monk who spoke decent English and repeated himself a lot. I didn’t learn much about Buddhism, but no matter. The highlight was our quiet walk though the main prayer room, where about 900 monks were in midday prayers. Some were chanting, some where whispering among themselves, some just stared at us we walked past. At the front, sitting cross-legged on a raised platform, sat the head monk in a buttercup robe that seemed to glow despite the gloom inside.
After the tour Karly and I made the 3-km trek around the monastery, turning every prayer wheel – more than 1100 – along the way. The locals seemed delighted that we went the whole way around, instead of stopping halfway as most tourists do. (It’s hard work spinning badly-greased wheels with just your right arm, 1100 times.)
As we began the last third or so of the trek, we were overtaken by an older woman and her middle-aged son. She beamed at us – at me, really. Her muddy eyes sparkled in a familiar way. Her dentured smile also reminded me of something. What was it?
We caught up to her again a few prayer-wheel sections later. She smiled again, and looked directly into my eyes. As she walked away I realized that her face – her eyes, her smile – were my maternal grandmother’s. It was like my yia popped in from the dead to just say hello. (Yiayia is Greek for grandmother. My nickname for my maternal yiayia was “Yia.”)
Now, you all know that I’m not a religious person or subject to mystical nonsense. This cheerful old woman simply reminded me of my grandmother. But at the time, it felt like more.
Something similar happened to me 4 years ago, about 3 months after Yia died. It was May 2005. Henry and Michele had just gotten married in Ireland. A few days after the wedding I flew to Paris with the Guineys and Jake. One day we visited their mother Louise, who was ill and losing her memory. Her still-gentle confusion reminded me of Yia’s confusion as her dementia took hold. Pat and Lis’s distress and helplessness (gamely but ineffectively masked by cheerfulness and action) reminded me of my mother’s distress and our pain watching our strong, self-assured Yia deteriorate to a scared and scary shell.
Just three months earlier, in late February, my family had all flown to Greece to bury Yia. Her body had finally succumbed, and I think we all thought it was a good thing that she no longer suffered. But in Paris that spring, the pain of losing her was still fresh. Seeing an echo of what had happened to her ripped open the scab.
That night, in my tiny Paris hotel room, I had the most vivid dream of my life. I dreamed that Yia was standing in front of me, her eyes sparkling, her denture-perfect smile wide. I felt her warmth as I hugged her; I felt her smooth but wrinkled skin as I kissed her cheeks, her forehead, her hands. Neither of us said a word. When I woke up, I thought, “Yia said goodbye to me last night.” Nothing like that had happened to me before. Nothing has happened since – until Xiahe.
Of course, the dream was really *me* saying goodbye to *her.* It was part of mourning. And the praying old Buddhist in Xiahe just had a similar smile. But these things *feel* mystical, like there really could be another dimension/heaven/nirvana/what-have-you. If there is, Yia is certainly making the best baklava around.
Hiya, Yia. S’agapo.