A Journey to
The End of China
(Lyons Press)Several years ago, Stanley Stewart essayed to travel across China from Shanghai to Tashkurgan --- roughly 3500 miles along what is left of the ancient Silk Road. He journeyed by boat, train, bus, foot, and donkey-cart. He doesn't report any time spent moving by elephant, yak or ostrich, but given his willingness to try anything, we are sure that he would have done so had the opportunity presented itself.Stewart turns out to be a fine, observant, and most of all, tolerant-of-
all-the-gods- hand-out traveler. This from a meal taken in west China:
After a time dinner arrived. It consisted entirely of sheep and it became clear that no part of the animal was wasted. The feet were served up as an hors-d'oeuvre, the intestines were a great success, I believe I spotted a retainer munching on the ears, and it was only with great difficulty that I managed to fend off the eyeballs. Other parts mercifully were less easy to identify.A willingness to go anywhere, a willingness to do anything: isn't that what real travel is about? Stewart gets stuck in the thankless town of Wuwei. It's time to get out. He needs a train ticket. But he is told by the ticket lady in the train station "Meiyou." That is, in China, he tells us, "the eternal negative." How about a ticket tomorrow? "Meiyou." Next week? "Meiyou." Next month? "Meiyou."
He decides the only way he is going to make it out of town is by proposing to her. "Where to?" she asks. "Nowhere, I am asking you to marry me." He speaks loudly. Everyone in the station wakes up. He has an audience. The stationmaster arrives.
"Sir," I said, warming to my role, "I wish to ask for the hand of one of your employees."
It works; he is on his way out of town the next day. One must be resourceful.
We've all heard of the "Cultural Revolution," the "Gang of Four." For most of us, it is a vague horror that swept over the country at the same time as the Viet-Nam War. But listen to this description by Gao, who lived in Suzhou, who had all his "Ming vases, priceless scroll paintings, statues of Buddha, attacked in the same way as coloured ribbons in a girl's hair or a blouse that was deemed too bourgeoise:"
The Red Guards had forced him to smash the collection himself piece by piece. They threw the sherds in the canal.
Gao spoke slowly as he told me this, as if reliving the shock. He was a reticent man and he had not, he explained, spoke about the destruction of the collection to many people. The memory was too painful for public display, and he could not bear the pointlessness of relating it. Nothing would bring them back. Then too, he said, so many people had lost members of their family, that it was difficult to speak about vases. But he was an old man now. If he died with this tragedy as a secret their triumph would be complete. Now he wanted as many people as possible to know about it.
"They were not strangers, outsiders," he said, his palms pressed together. "They were the children of the neighborhood. I had watched them growing up. They took pleasure in all this destruction as children take an innocent pleasure in breaking things." His hands unfolded against his shirt front in some gesture of protection. "Youth is a terrible thing. Terrible."
§ § §
This reviewer fell in love with Stewart early on, at the same moment he fell in love with Fu Wen in Xi'an. He begs her: "Come with me ... Come to Tulufan. Come to Wulumuchi. Come to Kashi. I will meet you there. When can you come?"
"It is not possible," she said.
I put my lips to the little spoon of skin, the soft pulse. She tilted her head back against a pillar, an equine arching. Her skin was buttery and smelt of almonds.
And then? A pause. And then? Listen:
In the twilight the old men's pet crickets were singing their hearts out. They sang of love, the males and females serenading one another across the darkening gardens from their little wicker cages. Their duets could last for hours. In protracted litanies of offerings and response, they were trying to identify and assess one another. If one of them departed from the melody by as little as a fourth of a tone, the exchange was abandoned, to be taken up later with another. It was a quest for compatibility, the wisdom of crickets.
This is, I put it to you, gentle, artful ... and not a little tragic.
§ § §
Where do we end up? We make it out of China at Kashgar, and then on into Pakistan. After crossing "the Roof of the World," Stewart discovers a paradise of people who "spoke English, took milk in their tea, and knew the latest cricket results." He did it, he loved it, but there comes a time...
The best travel writers are those who convince us that we would like to travel with them, joined at the hips. Stewart is kindly, interested, what we used to call "worldly," and his story is jam-packed with facts (there are 35,000,000 Chinese who live in caves; in the hills of Tekes, you will find "wheatears, stonechats, golden orioles" and "solitary hoopoes").
We found ourselves wanting to be right there with him, on those noisy cold busses, in those donkey carts, on those endless trains. If we could just talk him into it, taking us with him on the next trip. How about going to Sunda? Papua New Guinea? Across Uzbekistan? You name it, Mr. Stewart --- we're your slaves. Only take us along. We will promise to be your Fu Wen, to the best of our ability.
It must be his dry wit, his fearlessness, his sense of fun, his kindliness. Yet we know for him the real adventure of going to such absurd places is the one of being alone, into a world of people away from our world. Sigh. It probably couldn't be any other way.--- Mary Leslie Botts