September 13 2007
The “Heavenly” Lake
Since there’s plenty of space in
Two old men practice Tai Chi oblivious to the morning traffic and watchful presence of tall, mirrored office buildings. A man with a cane-length artist’s brush letters a long line of Chinese characters onto the pavement—using water. Is this an art form, a form of meditation or just graffiti Communist-style?
In one corner, 8 women in tee shirts and polyester pants practice a series of sinewy body-movements peppered with sudden flashes of bright red and yellow fans. Nearby some 25 other women, many wearing low-heeled pumps and more tailored work clothes, practice a dance routine full of side sweeps, back bends and hallelujah arm gestures. Though it doesn’t quite come off with Rockette-precision, this peppy troupe of Chinese ladies belts it out with chorus line verve.
Meanwhile men pass by lugging carts laden with straw and people bound for work scurry by.
The sound of polka-tempo music—only filtered through thin, high-pitched Eastern tones--draws us across the plaza. There, an assortment of energetic fox-trotters are struttin’ their stuff—older married couples, pairs of middle-aged women and even some loners—of both sexes—arms outstretched around invisible partners, wholly immersed in their swinging and swaying.
If the square belonged to young children last night, the sprightly oldsters take full advantage of it in daylight.
We amble past the central obelisk lettered with Mandarin and
Arabic characters. It’s called the
But it’s time for the
Oh, it’s pretty enough, surrounded by ice-capped mountains ridged with
huge vertical stands of deep green fir trees, but it’s a van ride of maybe 120
kilometers, during which we could have gotten the sense of what it’s like to
have traveled in an ancient Silk Road caravan…except this one’s all tour buses.
The ride takes us more than an hour over mostly empty, dead desert terrain and
when everyone arrives we funnel like cattle through a sole entry gate. Ain’t no EZ pass. An additional hour of jockeying for position. Then an
afternoon of more waits—for a bus up to the mountain lake, for a 20-minute boat
trip around it, for a steep cable-car descent—each book-ended by pretty scenery
Nor is it Way Cool.
What is kinda cool
is standing on the long, snaky cable car line watching the people watching us.
We are far, far west, in remote Xinjiang, a province
that’s 60% comprised of
They’re very unlike the Chinese majority:
their cheekbones are higher, their skin darker, their eyes wider-set. They have little experience of Westerners. We
are curiosities. Some watch us shyly, some boldly. When we catch their eyes, most look away. The
few who smile are sometimes even willing to reach out and touch us. My blonde
hair is a particular novelty. One man asks our guide how old
Toilet Training (Sorry no personal pictures)
What’s not cool at all is our first experience of Chinese provincial “ladies rooms.” A kind term if ever there was one.
Here on the mountain the “toilet” is just another of those humbling experiences MANkind is famous for. Has invented to humble womankind.
You stand on line outside, amid many ladies of all nationalities, but mostly experienced Chinese, of course, waiting your turn to squat. You enter the poopy place, a narrow corridor. Instead of cubicles with doors, there on your right are 10 spaces that are more like small public showers—except there ain’t no shower curtain.
You try not to look ahead or to your right because the view while waiting for a stall is of woman after woman facing forward, arms clutching clothing, handbags, cameras (god forbid a hook) to chests; pale, white, pimply, cellulited haunches hanging below.
Now, strategy comes in. You really want to be in the very last cubicle (or, grudgingly, next to last) because no one (well, almost no-one) can see you. But in order to get it you have to pass everyone else and you have to wait as casually as you possibly can near the end hoping, hoping, hoping no one will force you into the spaces that open up (literally) until that last one or two comes available.
When it’s finally your turn you enter your very own 3-sided cubicle, face the wall in front of you and plant one foot on either side of the square hole. There’s a trough underneath that runs the length of the whole room—presumably. You try not to step in it as you pass your left leg and plant your foot across the hole. Then you drop your pants and underpants, once again trying not to let them drop into the hole. (Skirts would work so much better but who wears them any more? Actually, the Chinese do…)
Then you squat, hoping you won’t totter or topple over completely and your entire body fall into the hole. Then you look at the left wall and consider grabbing it for balance, wonder who or what has touched it before, wonder if you really have to and whether that move will definitely cause you to fall in. Then you have no choice because you can’t keep your balance unless you hold on. Then you wonder if you’ve somehow let go of some part of your clothes and will those fall in. Then you’re certain you’re unbalanced and you’re going to pee on your left leg.
Then you try to concentrate and do what you came in for. Which is damn near impossible.
Oh, you’re also holding for dear life onto
some squares of toilet paper that you brought in with you—because it’s not
By the way, at no time during the process do you breathe.
Joan went ‘in” first. I begged her to let me take a picture but she said it would cost me her friendship. Hence, there will be no pictures.
So now you all know why this lake was less than heavenly…
PS Below are some examples of exemplary squat positions I have observed but
unfortunately have no hope of imitating. You too can practice this at home.