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The “Heavenly” Lake
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September 13 2007 

The “Heavenly” Lake

 Since there’s plenty of space in China, they can afford to squander it on good stuff like town squares. Around 8 AM we took an after breakfast walk back to Urumqi’s central square. Large and empty but for a center obelisk, it’s called, like most of the main squares in China, the People’s Square. Though we Americans hear that name through cynical Cold War ears, that’s exactly what it is. Even so early in the day it’s filled with the common people doing happy human things.

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.


 Amid the dancers four or five elderly twosomes cavort about playing vigorous rounds of badminton—the net an imaginary prop. One woman hands me her racquet. I bat the birdie back and forth with her husband while she takes a brief solo spell out on the “dance floor.” 


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 Monument of Friendship and the calligraphy translates to “Friendship brings good luck, safety and peace.” Not sure about the safety, but good luck and peace are obvious.

 Homely Urumqi has grown on us.

 But it’s time for the Heavenly Lake.

 It isn’t.

 Heavenly that is.

 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 


 We learn today is a Taoist holiday and every single practitioner in the Eastern hemisphere needs to get up the mountain to the Taoist temple for the closed-to-the-unenlightened religious ceremony.  


 In this way we discover The Way is not easy...

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 China’s ethnic minorities—Uyghurs (a people descended from the Turks) plus Mongols, Kazakhs, Tajiks and more.

 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 Gary is.


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.

 In Beijing we discovered most restaurant and public “toilets” are ceramic holes in the floor, over which one squats. But there was almost always one Western toilet for the handicapped--which we American pre-arthritics clearly are. So in Beijing Joan and I just waited patiently for a proper potty. 

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 provided.

Let’s not even discuss the balance issues involved in wiping, but after you finally manage it, the only place to deposit it is on the open floor to your left—which you’ve so far been ignoring as hard as you can.

 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. 





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