The Price

April 30, 2017 – Ningxia Province

The cabbie drove as cabbies across the world do, only this time he was jamming into oncoming traffic, past trains slow-moving tourist cars on a tree-lined, two-lane country road, forcing himself back into the chain of vehicles here and there, muttering to himself, and occasionally offering me some cheerful advice.

It got worse as we got close to the mountains and we hit stretches of road that looked like they’d been washed out — some covered in large rocks, some gone completely and now topped not by blacktop but by backhoes and men with shovels.  When we encountered these, we’d veer off the road onto a gravel path and swerve around the people who seemed to actually care for their vehicles, scaring mountain bikers into the bushes.

Somehow, we made it. And so did everyone around us. I hope.

I bid a hasty farewell and went to check out the 10,000-year-old rock carvings, as well as what my guidebook told me was the “world’s only rock carving museum.”

Emphasis on the “was”. The same flood that had ripped out of the Helan Shan Mountains back in August and destroyed the roads had also destroyed the museum and most of the pathways around the canyon that the carvings call home. Luckily, the park had set up some makeshift plywood walkways so it was still possible to wander the canyon (to a point) and marvel at the carvings.

They cover the rock faces. The twisted human faces, hands, monkeys, horses, and spirals. In some places one or two or three huddle together. Others tell some ancient tale. Goats escaping from a pen. Deer running. People making love.

And others bunch together by the dozens, whole slabs taken up almost entirely by the art of the long-vanished tribes.

Even the Western Xia understood there was something to the place. Next to some of the more significant carvings, other carvings found root: Carvings of Xia characters, these only 1,000-years old, rather than 10,000. The characters the Xia carved pay homage to their ancestors.

Whoever they were.

Up a set of closed stairs a few dozen meters above the canyon floor is the most impressive carving: The Sun God. He radiates out of the rock like some pasta-headed medusa, watching those who walk the ancients paths.

He wasn’t the only watcher, either. At the canyon mouth the remains of a Ming Dynasty (14-15th century) guard town also watch the way from their perch up the canyon wall. The Helan Shan had long been one of China’s most effective barriers against the barbarians of the Mongolian steppe beyond.

The cab ride back to Yinchuan took about an hour. I still had one thing left to see. The city’s West Tower, which is more than 1,000 years old, although it’s been rebuilt a couple of times since. It’s 11 floors worth of dark, wood steps to the top, but the reward is a 360-degree view of Yinchuan, it’s parks, mosques, and endless apartment blocks.

Somewhere out there among them was my hostel, and it was about time to get there. As is too often true, all the things that could tell me the name of my hostel or its location were dead. So I just started walking, deciding that going in the direction the city drum tower was a fine idea. I got there. Then, I wandered around it for a while. I didn’t find my hostel.

Finally, realizing I was never going to find it no matter how many times I walked in a circle around the tower, I stopped in a coffee shop and charged my phone, and computer, and e-book. My hostel was 20 kilometers away on the other side of town. I rode the rush-hour bus for a hour to get there. All I wanted to do was check in.

I’d booked a bed over the internet a couple weeks before, but as I tried to check in, the woman at the desk had no idea what I was talking about. She didn’t even know the website. As I waited in the lobby for her to figure it out – I hoped – a Chinese kid walked downstairs. His eyes lit up when he saw me.

I was tired. So I told him I was from France.

He beamed. Then French flowed forth from his mouth as he dancing from foot to foot. Apparently he was a French major. The only Chinese French major I’ve ever met. I scrambled for an excuse.

“Canada,” I blurted. “French Canadian.”

“You don’t speak French?” he asked.

“Not even a little,” I said.

His face sunk. Then he told me he could show me where to eat, anyway. Now I owed him, I figured, so I left my booking problem to be sorted and followed him a couple of blocks as he skipped around traffic and bumbled through broken English, clearly nervous to be talking to me. He was a Chinese college student from Hunan, travelling through Ningxia. He didn’t know any foreigners where he was from, he said. Alex was his name.

Alex took me into an alleyway, which opened up into one of China’s great open-air food markets. Flames boiled out of dozens of stalls, the smoke carrying the tang of spiced meats and veggies over charcoal – the northwest specialty, barbecue skewers, chuan (串), mostly lamb and beef parts, or so they claimed. In the space between, crowds fought over the plastic stools rimming folding card tables. Those that already owned a table, bickered through mouthfuls of food over who should open which beer as they pulled them out of cases stacked next to the tables. Some of the crowd diced with premade dicing cup sets. Music boomed from karaoke joints set on the corners, and from hawkers trying to convince diners their chuan was the best.

Occasionally, the power would go out across a section of street.

I ordered fried sliced noodles – anther local speciality – skewered potatoes, and barbequed chives. He ordered french fries. We both ordered a bottle of the local swill: Xixia Beer. “Beer for the Northwest Man.”

Afterward, Alex told me maybe it was good I didn’t eat any of the meat. He heard of a foreigner once who ate it some.

He thought for a moment while he sashayed. “Stomach ache,” he said.

As we returned to the hostel, he tried to ask me if I liked a band. I understand the name he was trying to pronounce.

“You know, long hair. And drhudhs.”



“Sorry, I can’t…”

“D. R. U. G.” he said. “Drhugds. In the 70s.”

“Oh,” I said. “Metal music?”

He started to hum “Hey, Jude.”

“Ah, The Beatles,” I said. “Yeah, long hair, drugs. Hippies.”

“Hippies,” he said, trying the word out. “I like hippies.” He paused. “I’m always thinking about stuff, head is going …” He made a whirring motion with his hand.

“It’s good to think about stuff,” I said.

“No. I drive myself crazy,” he said. “Like when I read about physical. Physics, physics.”

He stopped for a moment.

“It’s like that book, The Stranger, by the guy. The only good question is why we’re here at all.”

We parted at the stairs, and I went up to the third-floor bar to work on this blog. Midway through a karaoke performance by one of the bar staff, a very large, kind of old, very drunk woman stumbled through the door. During each performance, she would start to squeal or scream. I could tell by the way the bar staff handled her, she either had something to do with the bar, or was somebody’s mom, or something of the sort.
This went on for a while, and then her attention turned to me.

She tottered over to the corner where I was writing. She grabbed my arm. She slurred something. She winked at me. She stuck out her tongue and wiggled it around.

I pleaded with her to let me work. Very busy I said. She kept making kissy faces at me. I kept pleading. The bar staff looked on, unsure what to do. Periodically they’d come over and gently try to lead her away. She’d push them away. Hard.

She started stroking my arm hair, grabbing it, pulling it. She moved her hand to the inside of my leg and started grabbing at my crotch. I stood up and started to gather my stuff. She pushed me into the corner, and held me there. I started to flash “help me” eyes at anyone who would look at me. Nobody would.

Then, in quick succession, she punched me in the face, licked me, let me go by, and kicked me in the butt, twice, as I hurried by. As I paid the bill, she blew one more kiss at me.

The bar manager apologized. He still made me pay the whole bill.

I finally got into my bunk, prepared to deal with noise all night from people coming in and out, people locking themselves out and banging on the door until someone opened it, people having conversations, and people watching movies  without headphones. And all those things did happen.

I wasn’t prepared, however, for the knock that came about 1 a.m. from the manager asking for the foreigner. Great.

I got up, pulled on a shirt, and made a face when I saw two other non-Chinese standing with her in the hallway. Turned out, they couldn’t speak any Chinese and she couldn’t speak any English, and she had a great idea: She’d wake up me – and everyone else in the room – so I couldn’t stand in the door shoeless and argue back and forth for both parties, while everyone else looked on.

They were looking for a room and hadn’t been able to find one with a room – or maybe one that felt like dealing with their lack of Chinese – until they stumbled on the hostel.

But the hostel had a room, the desk lady said. They accepted. More people might be added though. They declined. They could rent the whole thing! They accepted. It would be twice the price. They declined.

I’m not sure who looked more embarrassed, me or them, as they slunk back down the hallway. The desk woman didn’t flinch.

And she still made me pay the full price when I checked out five hours later.


Kingdom of the Dead

April 30, 2017 – Yinchuan, Ningxia Province

It was a holiday in China, and I hadn’t seen a single other person in more than an hour.

Add the wind blowing across the steppe, the jagged, dusty, empty mountains on the horizon and the lonely, beehive mounds in front of me, and also there, and there, out in the distance. And things were eerie. Things were weird.


Yep. Weird.

It didn’t help the that mounds, they were the places of the dead. Places of dead for nearly a thousand years.

By the early 11th century, the Song Dynasty was crumbling. The Tangut people of western China were about to have their moment in history. In 1038, the leader of these people, people who had migrated to northwest China sometime before the 10th century, named himself emperor of Da Xia, the Xia kingdom, and their leader, Li Yuanhao, demanded the Song court recognize him as an equal.

The history gets convoluted after that, but for 190 years the kingdom that historians would come to know as the Western Xia would rule over hundreds of thousands of kilometers, including the all-important-for-trade Hexi Corridor through Gansu Province into Central Asia, and millions of people. The Western Xia would spread with them a Tibeto-Burman culture and language along with their Buddhist beliefs. In those nearly two centuries, they would build, in an area some 40 kilometers outside of Yinchuan in the foothills of the Helan Shan mountains, nine imperial tombs for their emperors and 250 separate, lesser tombs spread out across 50 square kilometers. They built these structures – walled with gatehouses and sacrificial buildings and stone animals and guardians – not unlike miniature palaces. Things to stand forever as a testament to their glory.


Things of glory. Forever.

But sometime before 1227, and I know I’m glancing over a lot here, they got on the wrong side of the Mongols. So then in 1227, the Mongols attacked Yinchuan, executed the last of the Western Xia emperors, and completed what some historians have described as the first ever successful genocide, slaughtering nearly ever last Xia citizen in area.

And they burned the tombs in front of me to the ground.

And that’s how they’ve sat, beehive husks on the steppe beneath those empty mountains and that grey sky, swept by the wind and sand, not much different than I found them 800 years later.

Only one tomb has been fully excavated. Two others are in progress. The rest, and they’re out there somewhere, are mostly unexplored. And the complex is huge, stretching out under those mountains. Without the gas-powered carts that carry tourists to and fro, it would take a full day to get around. As it were, the carts don’t go much when you’re the only one there. So I wandered alone among the scrub around the mounds of the dead. And spent a lot of time sitting in carts, waiting to go.





April 30 – Yinchuan, Ningxia Province

The music they play is never the same – at least not in my experience – but it’s always horrible. It skitters across your sleeping consciousness like a shard of shattered glass on a freshly finished wood floor, cutting little, ruinous scratches as it goes. And then everything, no matter how little the scratches, is ruined, and you’re back on the stinking, rocking bunk as the 6 a.m. light sneaks through the window shades, outmatched the by too-bright lights that are already on throughout the cabin.

It was a special horror though, arriving in Yinchuan (银川) capital of China’s smallest province, Ningxia (宁夏), a special minority province, homeland of China’s Muslim minority group, the Hui, which was created to include all Muslims anywhere in China, no matter how culturally or geographically different. It was my own fault, really. Somehow, I’d forgotten to buy anything to drink before I boarded the train – which, at the time of boarding having sat in the sun for hours, couldn’t have been less than 95 degrees. I nodded off, sweating, in my bunk. And when I woke up and hour after the train departed and the air conditioning had finally caught up to speed, I was parched. And screwed.

I wandered the length of the train, up and down, looking for a dining car. Nope. Then I wandered the length of the train, up and down, looking for the left-out water bottle of some sleeping rube. No, I’m not proud of it, but can you blame a starving child who steals an apple. But still, nope, nothing. Then I did something I’m even less proud of. At least it was victimless. I fished a bottle out of the bathroom trashcan, cleaned a smattering of discarded green tea leaves off the top – screwed shut, thank god – and washed it off with the non-potable cold water. I knew it wasn’t going to count for much when I put that jellyfish-thin bottle underneath the only water available on the train – the scalding hot stuff people use to make tea – but I was out of options.

I stood at the tap handle and tried to decide which was worse: trying to sleep through the thirst I had a’going or drinking melted plastic. The former, I decided, was much, much worse. So I tried to hold the bottle under the tap – the tap I’d found where no one would see what I was doing. Exactly what the sign above it told me would happen, happened. I burned my hand, then nearly poured boiled water all over my crotch.

I went back to my bunk. I was starting to feel crazy and starting to act it, too, prowling back and forth muttering to myself. One of the train staff asked me what I was doing and where my bunk was. I mumbled something and pointed and I think he saw the look in my eyes so he nodded and sped away.

Then I saw my savior: A metal pitcher designed for hot water. I could fill it up and let it cool. It was going to be OK. I picked up the pitcher. It was, in fact, too well designed for hot water. Vacuum sealed. Still screwed. Whatever, worth a try. I filled it up. I didn’t burn anything. I let it sit.

The train left at 8 that night. By then, by the time I’d put the steaming pitcher at my feet under a miniature table to hide it from the train staff, to hide my shame, it was nearly 11:30. The train was scheduled to arrive at 6:30 the next morning, and I knew I was going to need my sleep. But man, I needed a drink of that water.

I let it sit for an hour, then tried to drink out of the pitcher. As I blew, the steam burned my eyes, but I couldn’t care anymore. I poured it on my lips, yelped, poured the rest of that swig on my thighs, and then some on the floor.

I knew then, as I scrubbed the wet spot with some used tissues – I was out of those as well – that I had only one choice left.

I poured the water in my plastic bottle and watched it as it crumpled beneath the heat. It burned through the plastic shell. I thought I could smell it burning. I waited five minutes, and drank the whole thing.

I was the best bottle of water I’ve ever drank. I got to sleep about 2:30.

When that music skittered across my brain four hours later, I could swear I could still feel the plastic coating my teeth.