Archive for November, 2010

The Train to Qujing

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Qujing is the second city of Yunnan Province, an hour and a half east of Kunming, unremarkable as far as I can judge, and a chosen destination only because of a friend there, of the Naxi minority, who is studying English at the teachers’ training college.

The train-ride to Qujing is remarkable, in its cluttered, chaotic, inimitable way. In China, I leave some margin of time to accommodate the unexpected, and so arrive at the station early.  The waiting room begins to fill as departure time draws nearer.  Throwing admonitions of racial blindness to the winds, I strain to discern the telltale features of countenance, dress, or decorations which might give me a clue as to which ethnic minority the bearer might belong, in this melting pot at the juncture of China, southeast Asia and the Tibetan plateau.  Oh, for a set of the eugenic measuring devices of my predecessors!  The triangularity of face, the set of the eyes, the bridge of the nose, the prominence of cheek-bones, all precisely measurable quantities, at which my furtive eyes can only guess and not record.  Or better yet, a set of the eugenic measuring devices of my contemporaries, a DNA sequencer! Is there some wee difference? Or is it all a matter of ethnic identification?

More obvious, if more ephemeral, are the badges of social status.  That smartly dressed chick whose vanity is easily confused with erudition; that scruffy lad with nonhereditary orange hair and dangling fag; that diminutive crone dragging a huge, shapeless, plastic sack, presumably enclosing her mortal possessions; that sun-browned, possibly-young woman toting her young, pappoose-like in a colorful rucksack; that budding-capitalist-type, who has deliberately left the label tacked to the sleeve of his expensive suit — all wanting to travel to Qujing this morning, most preoccupied with their mobile phones.

Twenty minutes before departure, the platform gates are opened, and the crowd surges, with little sense of an orderly British queue, towards the waiting train.  I wrestle my way over boxes and sacks to my reserved seat, experience only the slightest twinge of conscience as I evict the squatter in my seat, a tired-looked laborer who doubtless purchased a stand-up-ticket and hoped for a no-show, and settle into my north-facing window seat.  Lots of chatter of my seat-mates from which I mostly pick out parents explaining to their children ‘ta ting bu dong’.

At nine, precisely, the train moves out.  We pass, alternately,  piles of urban-renewal rubble and the slums which probably should be renewed, the ring of factories and heavy construction equipment, a further ring of modern apartments and elevated highways.

Finally we emerge into the Yunnan countryside.  The terrain is hillier.  The farming villages pick up the brilliant morning sun with their whitewashed building, all of which seem to have yellow trim, in fact, yellow ears of corn spread out on any and every surface — roofs, cornices, window sills, enclosing walls — exposed to the sun.  The fields are mostly bare at this time of year, a few newly plowed, a few still with dried corn stalks, others with sheaves of harvested wheat or rice straw.  Here and there a few horses and water buffalo scavaging the remnants.

The hilly land is not amenable to mechanized agriculture.  The terraced fields, neatly separated by small dikes, creating an intricate mosaic, are simply not compatible with tractors.  Buffalo-pulled plows, hoes and adze cope with the irregular shapes.

My bucolic trance is broken as a huge prison complex fills the landscape.  How many cells must there be?  How many inmates?  Who? For what crimes?  Liu Xiaobo?  The Tiananmen Tankman?  (Naturally, my Google search for other “Chinese prisoners of conscience” yields only “problem loading page” messages. )

The children opposite me are getting restless, bugging their weary parents for still more junk food, their apparent favorite being a wurst of sorts, extruded from its plastic casing under pressure from their little fists directly into their little mouths.  Luckily, the first urban arm of Qujing comes into view, and we soon arrive at the station.

With a journey like that, who cares if the destination is a little humdrum?

Of Dragons and Bellybuttons

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

It was the late Martin Gardner who introduced me to the interesting ecclesiastical debate over whether Adam and Eve had bellybuttons.  Given Moses’ (a pen name for God) account of their in- / con- ception, it is clear that they were not born viviparously to a mammalian mother, and so would not have the bumpy scar left by that traumatic event.  If they did, it would be a deception, a little like Agatha dropping a few obfuscatory clues.  Surely Moses would not do that.

In China one seems never far away from dragons, though in my travels I have more often seen facsimiles than the real thing.  In any case, I went out in search of clues to dragons in a lovely valley off to the west of Kunming, Konglong Gu, alleged to harbor many such clues.  “Konglong” translates as “terrible dragon”. You hard-core Linnaeans might object that a more accurate translation is “dinosaurus”, but we all know that’s just a Greek smokescreen for “terrible lizard”. Let’s not quarrel over trivia.

Of course, there’s a lot of good-natured kitsch to be seen there, like a merry-go-round with wooden horses replaced by mini-dinos, and the periodic roars emanating from the dinosaur replicas scattered about the park (which, I suspect, are not based on a scientific study of the structure of dinosaur larynges.)

But a very large structure shields a remarkable collection of reassembled, fossilized skeletons from the weather.  Someone has counted them; not me.  Other displays show the fossils in various states of reclamation, including of “live” workshop in which bones are being painstakingly freed of adhering soil.  When one extrapolates from the pace of that work to the hundreds of completed skeletons all about, the admission fee snaps into perspective.

The far side of the building covers a complete gully, which gives the impression that a paleontological dig is really child’s play.  Here a collapsed skeleton, there a clutch of eggs.  The vegetation has been obligingly removed, and a well-placed light draws your attention.  But even so these are low-hanging fruits, yielding lots of juice for the squeeze.  And it’s no wonder the valley has been a focal point for paleontologists since the first remains where discovered in the 1930’s.

A femur is a femur, a mandible is a mandible — any amateur can recognize them — even though they may be out-sized and over-toothed.  It’s truly impressive how body plans have been recycled.  Evolution is not iconoclastic.  On my stroll through the valley garden I was accompanied by two comely Finnish nurses, but all the time I was imagining taking the stroll with Charles Darwin.  Charles would have loved it, even the merry-go-round.

Being oviparous, dinosaurs assuredly did not have bellybuttons.  But the argument that these fossils were placed here (in China no less) by some higher intelligence as false clues to test my faith in the Mosaic description and chronology seems ludicrous, even by papal standards.  I failed the test with flying colors!

Sculptured Earth

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Yunnan is a mountainous province and home to many of China’s ethnic minorities; not coincidentally, it is one of the poorest provinces in China.  Some 150 km north of the provincial capital of Kunming there lies a region known as “Red Earth”, with villages perched at 2,500 meters below peaks at 3,200 meters.  As with any alpine region on earth, the scenery is magnificent as one plies, sometimes breathtakingly, the switchback road in a friend’s rickety Honda.But the mountains here are unique, unlike any I’ve ever witnessed.  For they are meticulously sculpted, from valley floor nearly to the peaks, into a patchwork of terraced fields.  Even in mid-November, the patchwork is colorful, the light green effect of turnip leaves with white flowers, the darker greens of other vegetable crops, the browns of already dried fields of corn, rice and other grains, the brilliant red where the soil has been plowed up in preparation for the next round of planting.  A photographer’s wonderland as the colors change daily with the movement of the sun and clouds, and seasonally with the succession of crops and freshly tilled soil.As my camera clicks to capture the beauty of the place, I can’t help wonder how many hands over how many hundreds of years sculpted these terraces. Certainly in their minds was no thought of beauty, nor of environmental impact, simply of survival, of feeding themselves and their children.  Even today one can read that purpose in the face of the old woman trudging home, bent forward under the load of turnips in the basket strapped to her back.  Were they relegated to these marginal lands by a traditional sense of home, or by pressure from the more numerous Han Chinese advancing into the valley floor?  Can I expect them to continue to maintain these fields and the way of life bound to them for my delectation?  Can I chide their sons and daughters for fleeing to the sterile factory dormitories of Shenzhen? (more…)