Descriptions to Moutern


Not certain if my memory of Phongsaly is real or fake.

Because the ends and starts of the conversations I observed in Moutern seemed similar enough that I think I might be misremembering the whole thing.

In my memory, discussions followed a schematic: a greeting and introduction (delivered in a particular fashion and with particular physical posturing), then the conversation proper (when the back-forth of the speakers’ exchange falls into a repetitive pattern where one person speaks while the other listens and performs reactive acknowledgement), and finally the winding down of the speaking (when sentences are short and staccato until one party chooses silence).

The beginnings and ends, with their apparently more defined behavioral rules, seemed to resemble each other because of those rules — likely because I couldn’t understand a single word being spoken.

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A Pakse of Four Thousand Islands


Champasak lends itself well to superlatives.

The southernmost province embodies such awe-struck descriptions as “most beautiful” place in Laos with the “best coffee and goi pa/ກ້ອຍປາ” and astounding sunsets.

Starting from Champa’ and traveling west, you would encounter the region of Isaan within the country of Thailand. Turning east toward the rising sun, ascending the Bolaven Plateau, and keeping onward, you would find yourself in the wet heights of Attapeu or Sekong Province. Southward to the Cambodian border, you would come across four thousand islands carved by waters that came all the way from Tibetan elevations.

Pakse, the capital of Champasak Province and second-largest city in the country, is often the beginning and end point to exploring the rainy, coffee-growing region. It also serves as a jumping off point for trade and travel to Cambodia, Vietnam, or Thailand. Like many large cities in Laos, Pakse lies along the Mekong; unlike every other large city in Laos, it’s divided into two by the southerly meander of the Nam Xe Don tributary.

The city offers some fairly impressive views of both rivers and their confluence. One of those views — from the hill across the Lao-Nippon Bridge — is intended for those prepared to handle some dilapidated wooden stairs (and just stairs in general). The lookout near Wat Phu Salao and its Golden Buddha offers an expansive view of the City-split-in-two:

However, Champasak’s main tourist draw is its plentiful waterfalls.

Assuming you know the road and have a motorbike, you could visit at least three in a day. Some waterfalls are encircled by restaurants and small-ish resorts, meaning that no trekking is required. Others require a little more from their would-be visitors (and offer more in exchange). Tile 2’s Tad Gneuang Falls, for example, first transforms its visitors into unwitting worshipers. Then it drenches them in a mildly holy mist as they clamber down a path of slick and steep stone stairs to snap a shot in fleeting wonder.

The Khone Phapeng Falls just north of the Cambodian border are a veritable apotheosis. Over 11,000m³ of water pass over these falls every second, making them one of the largest falls by volume in the world — a full four times larger than Niagara Falls and ten times larger than Victoria Falls.¹ The falls consist of a network of narrow channels and steep cataracts that spans 10km altogether, making it the widest waterfall in the world.

About 40km upstream of the Khone Phapheng Falls, the Mekong already begins to stretch itself out into a patchwork of waterways and rapids patterned with proliferate islands. Together, they form the eponymous archipelago of Four Thousand Islands//Siphandon.

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The challenging river terrain once stymied French colonial traders seeking to connect the then-colony of Indochina with China at the Mekong/Lancang headwaters. Khone Phapheng’s rocky rapids forced them to build a small-gauge railway between Don Khone, the largest island, and its neighbor, Don Det, to circumvent the impassable falls. The railway eventually fell into disuse in the 1940s, but was, for a time, the only railway built in Laos until Thailand’s Northeastern Line was extended from Nong Khai to Vientiane in 2009.

Nowadays, the islands are still just as split-up and surrounded by the Mekong as they were a hundred years ago. Bridges and ferry boats connect the islands across the copious channels that flow between them. These channels act as a natural funnel for the river’s fish, making some areas — like just downstream of Khone Pasoi Falls, for instance — ideal fishing grounds.

Champasak isn’t just the sum total of tourist descriptions of waterfalls and dreamy islands, though.

Sure, many of Champa’s observable features could be recorded and told in denotative language, but they’re often meaningless without an underpinning of value. Frequently it’s the things that are less observable that inspire that value. However, those less-observable things are themselves the product of some sort of secret summation based on physicality and straightforward perception.

So, with some simplification, Champasak is a place where things occur and continue and are built upon or removed. Lumber and steel and clay bricks have been arranged here. They’ve been moved just as much as the black opalescent butterflies and dalmatian clouds glide northward to Salavan. This space is where ant colonies function. In July, a new crop of glutinous rice will be transplanted, then grown, harvested, processed, and cooked.

In Champasak, families build houses and share meals and peer across the table at one another. Here, people walk across somewhat reddish soil that, when trenched into paddy and inundated by seasonal rain, appears more brown than its un-wet color.

In juxtaposition with the sky and its green-leaved downstairs neighbors reaching into the upward open, the dirt path and side-of-the-road wooden fences are quite content to stay put.

And that’s alright, here is both.



Beginnings of things might be when the-other-way-around comes rightside-up.
For example, watching some birds and bats and airplanes fly upside-down outside the window then sitting up to see them cruising the typical way.

Ends of things might be when they slowly topple down head-first or their physical becomes something else’s physical.
Example: when Pakse drifts off to some southern and eastern place and then, one year later, starting to wonder how long the distance has been.

Because of those upwards and downwards, and because the evening can slowly turn purple to pink Navel orange,

Earth heals.

It stitches them together as if it’s “been there” too — starting out/settling down.
Water listens before anything else, even when stepping into the warm rain bathing (brown) in this rice paddy,
and the sky feels breath-heat, making space.

Green things are a cure. Seriously.
Which is why it’s alright to watch things upside-down, wonder about four thousand islands in Berlin, and still have muddy toenails for many days.

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For Vientiane, history, and the humans of Moutern Village


It wasn’t too long ago that Vientiane laid down its silken fabrics along the Riverbank.

Later, folks would sell these and other wares under moon- and floodlight. Real and fake sandalwood prayer beads would be presented alongside the pa-biang/ຜ້າບ່ຽງ scarves, laid out from left to right, overlapping, like a textiled rainbow.

Continue reading “For Vientiane, history, and the humans of Moutern Village”

Lunch (Thoughts of Shanghai)


Late lunch was xiaolongbao from the original spot on Wudong Lu.

Still didn’t take a picture — ate them all with dark rice vinegar (the Zhenjiang variety of legendary origin) before I could even pull out my smartphone.

Later that day I would take a taxi to Pudong with several large bags and check in for a red-eye flight direct to LAX. First, I’d eat these eight dumplings — minced pork mixed with spring onion and aspic set inside circular unleavened dough wrappers then folded and pinched shut — directly from the bamboo steamer. These were the same ones I tried after arriving in Shanghai last year: the ones with vinegar poured in the same saucers, red chili sauce served with the same tiny spoons.

Exactly eight dumplings; no more, no less.

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Huangshan, the Mountains of Primordial Ink


Painting personified.

The colossal forces that formed the mountain range of granite peaks roughly 250 miles inland from what would later be known as the East China Sea succeeded in inspiring countless artists, poets, Buddhists, and travelers to imagine their world as crafted by powers greater than themselves.

An ancient titan drew up enormous mounds of earth from the Mesozoic sea floor¹ and took a hammer and chisel to the whole thing with reckless abandon. The mountains that remain are the work of that capricious giant.

Li Bai, the famous Tang Dynasty poet, once described the mountains: “The place is still traceable where the immortal/Before ascending to heaven made elixir out of jade.”

The scale and intensity of geologic change is unfathomable.

Humans call this mountain range shaped by the demiurges of time, tectonism, and erosion Huangshan (lit. Yellow Mountains).

Located in the south of modern-day province of Anhui, the 72 peaks of the Yellow Mountains still stand with 6,000-foot-tall shoulders above an ocean of clouds.

Climb

The UNESCO World Heritage Site asks much of its visitors.

The mountains require traversing endless paths of steep stone steps to truly appreciate the scene. These 60,000 steps are said to have taken over 1,500 years to carve out of the mountain.¹

For the countless porters laden with loads of food and supplies weighing more than they do, climbing the mountain unburdened would be no problem. The muscles in their calves are evidence enough that they could reach the peak in half the time it takes the average tourist. As such, the Yellow Mountains demand payment for their incredible vistas (and all the amenities available at the top of the mountain), and those who aren’t short-of-breath receive nothing in exchange. Sacrifice must be made for the mountains to rewards photographers with beautiful photos.

The mountains also require that artists portray their curves and juxtapositions beautifully. Chinese shan shui (山水) painting is a type of ink wash painting that is particularly well-suited to the natural aesthetics of Huangshan. The style of traditional Chinese painting has been used since the 5th century;² countless images of the mountains have been produced in the shan shui style since then.

Photographers have also adapted some elements of good shan shui painting to the different medium.

The Yellow Mountains and their surrounding villages draw thousands of visitors every year. The villages of 宏村//hong2cun1 and 西递村//xi1di4cun1 at the base of the mountains are renowned for their 600-year-old buildings³ and status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Scenes from the famous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film were filmed in Hongcun.

Gnarled trees clinging to unorthodox (and precipitous) formations of megalith aren’t the only draw to Huangshan. The location also produces some of the China’s most famous teas: Maofeng, and Keemun (祁门//qi2men2).

More information about Anhui’s Huangshan can be found on the local government website, which also features some incredible images and descriptions of the mountains’ most breath-taking sites.

Luoyang: A City from China’s Heartland


China was born here, in Henan.

The place is both unique and ubiquitous at the same time. As one of the 中国四大古都 (China’s Four Great Ancient Capitals), the city of Luoyang still embodies a part of China’s soul and history. The city was prominent as far back as 510 BCE as the capital of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. This dynasty existed on the very edge of ancient Chinese history, directly following the quasi-mythic Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BCE) and China’s first archaeologically proven dynasty, the Shang Dynasty of 1600-1046 BCE.

The Zhou Dynasty, which existed between 1046 and 256 BCE, is itself divided into the Western and Eastern eras, the latter of which encompassed the Spring and Autumn period and the subsequent Warring States period when monarchical authority crumbled and various minor kingdoms rose and fell.

As such, Luoyang represents an era that later marked a critical turning point in Chinese history. With the fall of the Zhou Dynasty came the rise of the first dynasty of Imperial China, the Qin Dynasty, whose initial emperor unified six of the warring states. His accomplishments are forever commemorated by his massive mausoleum (still being excavated today) and the famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an.

Remnants of the past still persist in Henan. Luoyang’s 白马寺//bai1ma3si4 (White Horse Temple) is traditionally thought to be the “cradle of Chinese Buddhism,” as the first Buddhist temple in China. The temple’s historical roots stretch all the way back to 68 CE, when it was constructed under Emperor Ming after having a vision of the Buddha in gold.¹

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Astounding in their size and quality, the Longmen Grottoes on their own are worth the trip to Henan. The incredible grottoes feature Buddhist figures carved directly into the limestone hillside.

The site was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, with its 2,000+ caves, 100,000 statues, and over 60 pagodas.² Most of these are over 1,000 years old, dating back to the culturally and socially inspired Tang Dynasty before Emperor Wuzong’s xenophobic Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution that attempted (and, in some cases, succeeded) to purge nonnative religious influences.

However, Longmen’s enormous carvings survived until modern times for flocks of tourists to stand in awe and selfie.