Lijiang 1995

In the summer of 1995 my younger brother, Michael, passed from this world and I voyaged around the world on my way to Tibet, where I would pray for his soul. I stayed short times in LA, Honolulu, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai.

In September I flew north to Kumming and after a few days traveled from Dali to Lijiang.

A four-hour trip by bus.

Yunnan Vvillages dotted the roadless slopes of steep valleys. I was the only gwai-lo on the decrepit bus. A villager opened a bottle of soda. The cap revealed a winning number. 5000 yuan. More than a thousand dollars.

I understood no Chinese, but two weasel-faced men befriended the wary villager. They tried to get him off the bus, but the driver refused them to steal the villager’s prize.

The bus driver was a good man.

Lijiang had been the capitol of the Naxi people from the year 658 AD to 1107 AD serving as a southern Silk Road outpost for caravan voyaging from Burma, Yunnan, Tibet, and Persia. So far the old Baisha city had survived the urbanization wiping out ancient China and the centuries-old neighborhood has been declared a World Heritage site with good reason.

Stone buildings bordered the meandering streams and Naxhi music floated on the air, having been protected from the Cultural Revolution by the remoteness of Lijiang.

I picked a hotel on the outskirts of old city.

Chairman Mao hailed my arrival.

I was the only one to salute back the Chairman.

My hotel room on the the 4th floor room was simple. The bed was comfortable and the window offered a view of the Jade Dragon Mountain. Clouds covered the 5500-meter Himalayan peaks. The Naxi called the tallest Mount Shanzidou. In 1987 two American mountaineers had scaled its heights and said the climb was very dangerous.

I set up my typewriter on the desk, content to be far away from the awe-struck tourists on the Great Wall of China.

I turned on my Sony Worldband radio. Women from around the world were flocking to Beijing for an international congress.

Hillary Clinton was coming to address the conference.

She was married to the president of the USA.

The BBC said the Chinese Authorities were at a loss as to how to handle these ‘guests’.

There were thousands of them.

Wanting freedom.

From men.

Naxhi women were hard workers. The traditional matrilineal family had been eradicated during the Cultural Revolution, however the dominant females retained the right to leave their wealth to women. Men were rarely seen working the fields.

Some tended to tourists in the old town.

At night they got drunk.

Beer was cheap in China.

I got drunk too.

Like I said beer was cheap in Lijiang.

Sadly the restaurants in Lijiang offered a very limited menu.

Noodles, noodles in a broth, scallion pancakes with noodles.

Plus a tasty Yunnanese specialty.

ç‹— or go? or dog.

I had eaten dog in the Spice Islands. I ordered a plate. The backpackers regarded me with horror. Gou was a good change from noodles.

After dinner I attended a concert of Naxhi music. The Baisha xiyue orchestra consisted of antique Chinese musical instruments like the flute, shawm, Chinese lute, and zither.

The multi-tonal repertoire was hard on Western ears and I left early to search for bootleg cassette tapes in the night market. I stopped at a stall run by Tibetans. The Buddhist nation bordered Yunnan.

After drinking a few beers at a river cafe I wandered out of the old city to my hotel. The night manager handed over the key to an old lady, who accompanied me to my room. I turned on the TV. A young woman was reading news. I didn’t understand a word and sat at my typewriter. My fingers said nothing and I laid in bed listening to Jeff Beck on A TRAIN KEPT ROLLING.

I fell asleep by the light of the stars.

I couldn’t count how many.

In the morning I walked down to the main square. The city was asleep. A few backpackers were slurping down noodles. An old man ate dumplings. I signaled to the cook I wanted the same and wrote in my journal. The shuijiao were pork-filled and another welcome detour from noodles. The old man sat at my table and pointed to my block-script writing.

“English not beautiful.”

He painted a Chinese character in my journal along with other characters and stamped a red print to the right.



He nodded and corrected by annunciation.

I spoke all languages with a Boston accent.

Huang Fu invited me to his studio. I told him he spoke good English.

“As a young man I go school for English. A lucky man,” he laughed and explained his name meant ‘Rich future’.

“Good joke. Father not see no one have fortune with Mao. My family not lucky. I # 1 son. Red Guard sent me camp. Almost die.”

“Bad times.”

“Yes, but then they sent me here. Mao want kill all ‘olds’. Here far from Beijing. We walk here. Red Guard beat us. We get house. Have food. Red Guard hate here. Hate Naxhi. Everyone hate them. We go back to old ways. I write. Come I show you.”

We entered his house. The long rolls of Chinese characters covered the walls. Writing implements crowded the tables. Two friends followed us inside. They told their stories. The same at Huang Fu. We drank tea and Huang Fu drew on paper.

“This tell story Chinese win victory over America in Korea.”

He was proud of his nation’s fighting MacArthur to a stalemate.

I told him about my Uncle Jack killing hundreds of PLA soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir.

“War not good.”

We nodded in agreement, but I could tell that Huang Fu believed his country to be in the right, even if he was forced to live far from the center of the world and thought about Ezra Pound’s translation of Li Po’s poem EXILE’S LETTER.

I went up to the court for examination,
Tried Layu?s luck, offered the Choyu song,
And got no promotion,
And went back to the East Mountains white-headed.

I wasn’t in exile, but I was far from New York.

For a good reason.

To pray for my brother in Tibet.

I gave Huang Fu a photo of me and the Statue of Liberty.

“Big lady,” he laughed and said the same to his friends in Chinese. They laughed too and he gave me the calligraphy drawing of the USA defeat. I handed him 100 yuan. We shook hands weakly. No one in the Orient liked that Western habit.

I walked down alleys to the hotel.

I spotted a Chinese motorcycle on the street.

It looked like a BMW and a good ride to Tibet.

Zhongdian was only six hours away and the road to Lhasa ran west from the frontier town.

I asked the owner if he wanted to sell the bike.

He shook his head.

I pulled out $1000US.

He shook his head again, signaling it was forbidden for foreigners to drive in China.

Later that after I learned from two Frenchmen that the road between Lequn and Nyingchi was very dangerous.

“How dangerous?”


Five years earlier I had survived a head-on crash with a pick-up in Northern Thailand. The driver hated me. He had been at fault and the police had forced him to pay for the repairs to the motorcycle. I was lucky to escape with just a broken arm.

Even luckier in Bangkok.

Then again everyone is lucky in Bangkok until their luck runs out.

Bad roads had a funny way of killing good luck, so I decided to stay in Lijiang a little longer.

I rode a bicycle up the valley to the foot of the Jade Snow Mountains

The locals said there was a ski slope there.

I saw none.

I cruised leisurely down through the rural villages. TV antennae were the only sign of the New China that this wasn’t the 14th Century.

Same as it ever was.

A single temple rested under trees.

The Buddhist monastery had survived the Cultural Revolution.

A lone monk inhabited the temple. He blessed me and asked in sign language where I was going.

“Tibet.” I pointed west.

He smiled and picked up a stone.

“Tibet.” He wanted me to take it to Lhasa.

I nodded with a smile.

It was on my way around the world and I was taking my brother with me.

Tibet was not far away now.

And neither was my brother from my heart.

He lives in the stars always.

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