Sunday, January 07, 2007

Mongolia | Ulaan Baaatar | Silk Road Restaurant

Moving on quickly from Turpan to Ulaan Baatar but staying on the Silk Road theme I sauntered into the Silk Road Restaurant near the Choijin Lama Museum for dinner. Restauranteur extraordinaire Ankha, proprietor of the Silk Road Restaurant, in his trademark Atalas Silk shirt beside a reproduction of the Three Uighur Noblemen from the Bezeklik Grottos near Turpan in Xinjiang. The original of this artwork is now in the Indian Art Museum in Berlin, Germany. At least I think that’s the original. Knowing Ankha, he might have the original here and the one in Berlin might be a fake.
Copy (?) of Two Uighur Ladies from Bezeklik: The original (?) is in Berlin
Map of the Silk Road in the Dining Room of the Silk Road Restaurant
Detail of Silk Road Map
Nice wine selection at the Silk Road Restaurant
Around the table were translator, publisher, and gadfly Batbold, the inimitable American Red Hat monk Konchok Norbu, Mongolian monk Nyamochir, an Indian guy who lives in New York City, and a young American guy who also lives in New York City. These latter two are in town for a couple of weeks scanning old sutras in the National Library, where Nyamochir works, for inclusion in a vast digital library of Buddhist texts being prepared by Asian Classics. Batbold is in the final throes of giving birth to a translation into Mongolian of Alan Wallace’s latest tome, The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind. Alan Wallace’s better half is Vesna Wallace, author of The Inner Kalacakratantra: A Buddhist Tantric View of the Individual and Kalacakratantra: The Chapter On The Individual Together With The Vimalaprabha. Vesna is a regular summer migrant to Mongolia but is wisely spending the winter in California, where she teaches.
Batbold in his passive mode
Conversation was wide-ranging, to say the least. The Indian guy (sorry, I didn’t catch his name and neither him nor the American guy had business cards; are we living in a post-business card era?) gave a concise explanation of karma from the Mind-Only School point of view. Batbold expressed his decidedly idiosyncratic views on the current Dalai Lama. His main beef seems to be the Dalai Lama’s flirtation with the scientific method. Science can only measure the three-dimensional world. Only “direct yogic perception” can ascertain the higher levels of reality, according to Batbold. Nyamochir gave a fascinating justification of the use of alcohol from a tantric point of view. Konchog was kept on his toes nimbly sparring with both Batbold and Nyamochir. The lamb kebabs weren’t bad either.
Batbold in his manic mode

Monday, November 20, 2006

China | Xinjiang Province | Turpan | Emin Minaret

From the grape-vine trellised main drag of Turpan I walked about a mile through some back streets to the Emin Minaret. Completed in 1778 by Suleman Aqimu Boke in memory of his father Emin Khodja, the mosque and minaret complex has recently been renovated and is now a big-time pilgrimage and tourist attraction. Oddly enough, the outdoor market in front of the mosque has one of Xinjiang’s best selections of Buddhist art and artifacts for sale. The market also features a great selection of raisins—dozens of different varieties and grades—Korla Pears, Hami Melons (More Hami Melon News and Photos), dried fruit, nuts (especially Walnuts), and medicinal herbs.
Statue of Emin Khodja
The 121-foot-high Emin MinaretEmin Minaret and Mosque
Emin Minaret and Mosque
Emin Minaret and Mosque
Emin Minaret
View from Inside the mosque looking out
Tombs beside the Minaret. Islam believes in the bodily resurrection of the dead. Here are the bodies waiting for Resurrection Day.

China | Xinjiang Province | Turpan

From southern Bayankhongor Aimag it is just a hop, skip and a jump to Turpan, in China’s westernmost province, Xinjiang. Turpan is located in a deep depression, 100 feet below sea level, between the Tian Shan Mountains to the north and the Taklamakan Desert to the south. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it is the hottest city in China, Turpan is immensely popular with domestic tourists. The daily highs of over 100ºF in the summer give people a perfect excuse to spend the greater part of the day eating, drinking, and lounging in air-conditioned restaurants and bars, which is all that most people want to do anyway. The streets, almost completely deserted during the heat of the day—many of the locals retire to specially built cellars in their homes to escape the heat—become alive with thousands of people the moment the sun goes down and the balmy night air rolls over the city. The Night Market has hundreds of food stalls featuring Uighur and Chinese food and outdoor cafes feature Uighur musicians and discalced, bathukolpic dancing girls. Many people stay up till dawn and then sleep most of the day. The main street of Turpan is paved with flag stones and covered with grape vine-draped trellises meant to provide some shelter from the brutal sun.
The main street of Turpan
Sidewalk bordering the main street—deserted during the heat of the day
Turpan is the grape capital of the world. The oasis surrounding Turpan produces hundreds of thousands of tons of grapes a year. The most popular variety is the Thompson Seedless, which was introduced from the United States after a grape blight decimated many of the local varieties. The Thompson Seedless proved resistant to blight and soon became the favorite of Chinese consumers, who made up the biggest part of the market. There are many other kinds, however, and in the markets you can buy raisins made from ten or twelve different varieties of grapes, most kinds available in three or four different grades. Turpan produces 100,000 Tons of Raisins A Year.
Monument on the shore of Aiding Lake
Aiding Lake, about thirty miles south of Turpan, is 508 feet below sea level, the second lowest place on earth, after the Dead Sea. The lake is often dry, but after rains and spring runoff from the Tian Shan Mountains water up to three feet deep can cover an area nearly 50 miles long and 20 miles wide. The heat here is truly staggering. The day I was there the air temperature was 112ºF. I took a reading on the ground and got 138ºF. The driver of the car I went here with had to keep pouring water over the fuel pump of the car’s engine to keep the gas from vaporizing—otherwise the engine just died.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Mongolia | Bayankhongor Aimag | Ekhiin Gol Oasis

Approaching Ekhiin Gol Oasis, the termination point of our 173-Mile Camel Trip in the Gobi Desert of southern Bayankhongor Aimag.
Near Ekhiin Gol OasisZevgee and his wife Tümen-Ölzii on their magnificent Bayankhongor camels
Zolzaya savoring a cup of hot tea on a chilly morning
The Brothers Khaidav and Davakhoo
The Ja Lama’s Ovoo at Ekhiin Gol
During the early 1920s Ekhiin Gol was one of the camps of the notorious lama-turned-bandit Dambijantsan, a.k.a. Dambija, Ja Lama, Avenger Lama, etc. When Dambijantsan first came here he found Chinese peasants from Gansu province growing opium. He did not approve of drugs, nor Chinese for that matter, so he proceeded to kill all the Chinese and destroy their opium plants. He then set about robbing caravans on the nearby Shar Zam, or Yellow Road, the main caravan route from Mongolia to Tibet, Beijing, and Anxi in Gansu. There is a woman now living in Ekhiin Gol whose father was a lieutenant in Dambijantsan’s gang of marauders. To this day Ekhiin Gol remains an extremely fertile oasis with a huge crop of melons, tomatoes, and other vegetables. It is the only place I have been in Mongolia where you are routinely served tomato juice instead of milk tea when you enter a ger.
Terrorist? Bandit? The legendary "Green Woman” of the Gobi who materializes in the middle of night to slake her lusts on unwary caravan men and other travelers in the desert? No, actually it is Zolzaya protecting her faultless cream and butter complexion from the ravages of the Gobi sun and air.

Mongolia | Bayankhongor Aimag | Gobi Desert

Wandered out to Bayankhongor Aimag for a camel trip through the Gobi. Traveled 173 miles by camel in twelve days. Southern Bayankhongor Aimag is truly the Big Empty. During twelve days of travel we did not see another human being.
Amarbuyant Khiid, where we started the camel trip
Heading south from Amarbuyant Khiid
According to legend many frightening apparitions appear out of the dust storms and mirages of the Gobi Desert. At first glance this might appear to be one of them, but actually it is only camel herder, historical consultant, and discoist Zolzaya.
The Big Empty
A Marlboro Moment for camel herder Davakhoo
Camel herder and historical consultant Zolzaya stuffing her pie holeThree brothers I hired camels from: Zevgee, Khaidav, and Davakhoo

Thursday, November 16, 2006

USA | New York and Environs | Lovecraft

Before leaving for China I threw into my portmanteau the new Library of America edition of H. P. Lovecraft: Tales and have been dipping into it ever since. Here is the inimitable Lovecraft on New York City:
“a tangle of material and spiritual putrescence from which the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky . . . I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, and the clatter of obscene crotala, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen.”
I am willing to bet you do not know what a “crotala" is. I had to go the 20-plus volume Oxford Unabridged Dictionary to find out. A “crotale” is “A type of castanet used mainly in Latin-American music.” And far be it from me to quibble with Lovecraft, but the plural of crotale would appear to be crotalum, and not crotala, as he has it.

Of course it was just not New York that Lovecraft could not stomach:
"I hated the mocking moon, the hypocritical plain, the festering mountain . . . Everything seemed to me tainted with a loathsome contagion, and inspired by a noxious alliance with distorted hidden powers."
My feelings exactly. And in fact, it was not just the Earth he was revolted by. He also loathed:
“unknown spheres and powers . . . the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim.”
I had hoped that this new edition would shed some light on that much-reviled occult text the Necronomicon, which Lovecraft used as source material, but it now appears its author, the unspeakably vile Abdul Alhazred, was devoured by a flesh-eating demon in broad daylight in the marketplace of Damascus and is thus no longer available for interviews. I might add that Abdul Alhazred was not, repeat not, a follower of the Greek neoplatonist philosopher Proclus (410 - 485 A.D.), despite what some woefully uninformed people have claimed. For a thorough demolition of this absurd assertion see Proclus: Neo-Platonic Philosophy and Science.

Monday, November 13, 2006

China | Shaanxi Province | Xian | City Wall

Winged 557 miles southwest from Beijing to Xian, which as you no doubt know was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and during the Tang Dynasty probably the largest and most developed city in the world. It is still now probably the last large walled city in the world. The wall surrounding the inner city is a total of 7.3 miles long, forty-nine feet high, and fifty-nine feet wide at the top.
The immense Southern Gate to the city
Just inside the Southern Gate
Stairs lead up to the top of the City Wall
The southern side of the City Wall
The top of the City Wall
The 7.3 mile-long top of the wall provides a nice walking and biking path. Notice the bicycle-built-for-two.
Biker on top of the Wall
Belly button of Biker on top of the Wall
Inside of the east side of the City Wall
Outside of the east side of the City Wall
A green strip and hiking path extends all around the outside of the wall

Path along the outside of the wallOuter rampart of the City Wall

Green strip and park along the outside of the City WallRestored Qing Dynasty houses just inside the City Wall