West Again: Same Bed, Different Dreams in a School for Shepherds’ Children at the Foot of the Altun Mountains

2013-06-17 2013-06-17 003 029Travel Log, 15 June.

2AM: Even in the dark of night, walking out of the bus station in search of a hotel that’ll accept me, I’m impressed by how green it is here. The night air itself feels lush to my sand-crusted nostrils. Overhead, palms and poplars rustle in the light breeze. I’m in the oasis town of Charklik (Chinese: 若羌, pronounced “Ruoqiang”). Finally, after the last two days’ ordeal, I’m back in Xinjiang.    Continue reading

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West Again: Postcard from the town called Asbestos Mine

2013-06-14 2013-06-14 002 033Travel Log: 13 June.

9AM: No Alien Travel Permit–but I decide to get on a bus for western Qinghai anyway. As the puzzled policemen at the bus station had said emphatically the day before, I was “sure to not have problems.” Sure, that was before he’d called his superior, who’d told him that I was in fact strictly forbidden from engaging in such travel.  But then again the bus ticket lady, who ought to know such things, didn’t bat an eye when I went back in and asked her for the next bus to Huatugou. And the other cops walking around inside the bus station’s waiting area don’t pay me any mind, either. (hey’re focused on more important things, scrutinizing the Tibetans in the room as if they might be about to suddenly all self-immolate at once. They’re also watchful of everyone’s chickens–specifically, whether any of them were dead, or in the process of becoming dead. Eastern China has just had another bird flu scare, and Qinghai is thought to be the place where the original outbreak originated. So, I sit next to the sign that says 花土沟 (my forbidden destination) and nonchalantly tell curious passers-by that 花土沟 is, indeed, where I am headed. Those charged with keeping western Qinghai’s secrets secret just keep looking at the Tibetans, and the chickens.   Continue reading

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West Again: For One Last Adventure, All Roads Lead from Xining

West again: A few final stories from my last trip in China. With two weeks to kill between the end of classes and graduation, I bought a plane ticket to Xining, the jumping-off point of so many previous adventures (like in July 2011, July 2012, and November 2012). I had two choices: I could head south, back up into the Tibetan area of Amdo and perhaps onward into Kham. Or I could shoot west, through the semi-forbidden areas of western Qinghai and then down into Chinese Central Asia. I chose…

2013-06-12 2013-06-12 001 011

“Huatugou,” I said to the ticket lady. I looked up one more time at the crudely-depicted map of bus routes on the wall above me. The characters 花土沟 were there, sitting on the far left extreme of the map. “Flower Dirt Ditch,” was the literal translation, although I suspected they might mean “Potting Soil Ditch,” or even “Dirt Erosion Ditch.” In any case, the town was named for some kind of ditch, and I was trying to go there.  Continue reading

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For Spacious Skies: An Emotional Re-Entry

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I’m back in America. Owen and I landed yesterday morning, after a long and sleepless but blessedly uneventful trip home. The first thing Owen said when we landed was, “America is closed. Go back to China.” I laughed so hard I choked. Twelve hours back across the Pacific? I didn’t think so. But how was I supposed to convince a two-year-old of the awesomeness of our “new” home? [We moved to China when he was 2.5 months old, so it is his only known home.] I tried the weather: “Look at the blue sky! And the mountains and the grass and the trees!” I was choked up, actually streaming tears in seat 41K as we pressed our faces to the plane’s window. California must be the loveliest point of entry. Owen was somewhat impressed, but unconvinced. “We can pick strawberries here,” I offered. His eyes lit up. He jumped up in the seat and yelled to all the passengers, “Go to America now! Pick strawberries!”

The immigration agent asked us jokingly if we were siblings, and we shared a short, easy laugh. When I requested that he stamp Owen’s passport (the general practice for re-entering U.S. citizens is to pass through immigration without receiving a stamp), he grinned. As he leafed through Owen’s passport, his eyes widened. “Wow, extra pages! This boy’s been all over. I’m going to give both of you stamps.” And he did: thwack, thwack, “Welcome home.”  Continue reading

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On Biden’s Speech, Coming back to America from China, and Thinking Differently

4437e6a340051228e2e956[1]Nick here. Yes, it’s been a while. After I last surfaced in Mae Salong, I continued into Myanmar, came back to China, shut myself in a room for 7 weeks and wrote a little master’s thesis, and then hauled 白丽 White Beauty and 鸥汶 Little Seagull off on one last trip to see Zhejiang’s coastal islands.  All stories worthy of a post or two, and maybe I’ll actually write something intelligent now that I hold a graduate degree from such a prestigious Chinese university. Although, truth be told, my made-in-China degree may be pretty worthless even here.

But anyway, speaking of college degrees, and their being conferred at graduation ceremonies and such, there’s one thing I want to write about first: Vice President Biden’s commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania.  Continue reading

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Over and Almost Out

SmileI’m flying home in one week. That means my two years in China are nearly up, and so you all must be chomping at the bit to know what my highs and lows are, top-ten style. Well, okay. Here, then, a dual list: things I will miss and things I will not. (This may become a short series, but I’ll stick with ten for tonight.)

Things I Will Not Miss
1. Grandmas constantly scolding and chastising me for my parenting decisions, from warmth of clothing to choice of snacks to leniency in allowing my child to do things on his own
2. Going into a clothing store and realizing that I am the completely wrong size, shape, dimension, and height for every item (including shoes) Continue reading

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Postcards from the Bridges of Qingyuan County

_DSC3701To get back to Hangzhou from the islands of Matsu, we took the overland route, along some winding mountain roads (sometimes just paths) of northern Fujian and southern Zhejiang. Along the way we crossed some of the many  “corridor bridges” (廊桥) in these parts, most hundreds of years old and all built with an incredible “woven-timber” method that uses no nails for the underlying structure. For a couple of Vermonters who appreciate a good old-fashioned covered bridge when they see one, it was cool to see the Chinese version.  Continue reading

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Out on “Fu-chien” Province’s Horse Ancestor Islands, Where the Strait is Narrow, Plans are Big, and Travellers find Rescue

_DSC3614Fujian Province is kinda like Kansas City: it exists across two separate, higher-level jurisdictions. Except unlike the governments of Missouri and Kansas, with their peacefully state-spanning city, the governments of mainland China and Taiwan don’t officially recognize that any part of their shared province belongs to the other. They don’t even agree on how to alphabetically write the name: to the PRC it’s “Fujian,” while the Republic of China on Taiwan insists on the old “Fu-chien.” Even after the Nationalists lost control of dozens of their remaining island strongholds off Zhejiang and Fujian in the 1950’s, a few pieces of ye olde Fu-chien have remained. The most famous of these is Kinmen, a large island of flat farmland and sleepy villages sitting just a couple swimmable miles away from the giant (mainland) city of Xiamen. Lesser known are the Matsu (马祖) Islands to the north, which are part not only of a divided province but of a divided county, written/spelled 连江 Lianjiang in the PRC and 連江 Lien-chiang in Taiwan.  Continue reading

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