Monday, November 20, 2006

Chapter 3. Who is this man?

Ch 3. Who is this man?

I've named him Ivan, and I didn't invent him, I discovered him in a 1924 novel called The Price of Things by Elinor Glyn. He was on the first page and crucial to the whole story, which was supposed to be a coming-of-age novel about a young woman. I think Elinor Glyn found him as fascinating as I do:

If one consciously and deliberately desires happiness on this plane," said the Russian, "one must have sufficient strength of will to banish all thought. The moment that one begins to probe the meaning of things, one has opened Pandora's box and it may be many lives before one discovers hope lying at the bottom of it.

What do you mean by thought? How can one not think?" Amaryllis Ardayre's large grey eyes opened in a puzzled way. She was on her honeymoon in Paris at a party at the Russian Embassy, and until now had accepted things and not speculated about them...Honeymoon! Heavens! But perhaps it was because Sir John was dull...

The Russian, on the other hand, was not dull. He was huge and ugly and rough-hewn - his eyes were yellowish-green and slanted upwards and his face was frankly Calmuck. But you knew that you were talking to a personality - to one who had probably a number of unknown possibilities about him...

The Russian was observing this charming English bride criticially..."An agreeable task for a man to undertake her education," and he wished he had time...

(A few minutes later, he goes on to describe a gorgeous woman who the young woman has admired and remarked on, an American who he obviously knows well:)

...her only force is her tenacious will.

Such force is good, though?

Certainly. Even bad force is better than negative force. One must first be strong before one can be serene.

You are strong.

Yes, but not good.

If you are bad how does your theory work that we pay for each action? Since by that you know that it cannot be worthwhile to be bad.

It is not - I am aware of it, but when I am bad, I am bad deliberately, knowing that I must pay.

That seems stupid of you.

He shrugged his shoulders. "I take very severe exercise when I begin to think of things I should not and I become savage when I require happiness..."

Whew. That could make a person pick up a magazine and fan herself. The American woman, in a later scene, appears in his apartment, sitting on his knee and calls him 'darling brute.' A rather advanced novel for 1924. But a good one!
[link to abebooks page]

Fascinating man. I have decided to make him the love interest of this Silk Road novel, a more robust Lord Peter Wimsey for my own Harriet Vane. Which reference makes me realize that you'll understand Ginger better if you know a little about that story as well:

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers:
[link to abebooks page]

"Having been acquitted of one murder in Strong Poison, and been instrumental in the solving of another in Have His Carcase, mystery writer Harriet Vane arrives for the reunion (or gaudy) at her alma mater, the fictitious all-female Shrewsbury College, set at Oxford University. Here she encounters a tangle of poison pen notes, obscene graffiti, and dangerous pranks that she unravels with the help of Lord Peter Wimsey.

As the case develops, Harriet begins to admit to herself that she loves Wimsey, who has been proposing to her ever since they first met (in prison, as she faced the gallows as a suspect in the murder of her former lover).

Throughout the story, Harriet examines her ambivalent feelings about love and marriage, along with her attraction to academia as an intellectual (and emotional) refuge..."

[From Wikipedia:]

Here's another:

"...this plot is merely an excuse for a lot of musings about the life of the mind, the lives of women, and the possibility of combining the two. Sayers shows us a good many academic women (of varying degrees of unhappiness and neurosis), back when this necessarily meant a life of celibacy; she also shows us some who chose to marry and waste their intellectual talents; and finally she treats us to many of Harriet's thoughts on the subject as she searches for a middle course. The winding path of Harriet's musings, and the treatment of her love-affair with Peter Wimsey, account for much of the length of the book."

[From Mystery Guide:]

[Back to wikipedia]: "In an extraordinarily touching scene at the end of the book, Harriet Vane finally accepts Wimsey's proposal of marriage."

That last scene in Gaudy Night is more than touching, it is memorable and should never be forgotten by romantic people of intelligence. I'll save it for the relevant part of Ginger's journey on the Silk Road.

Now, back to her story.

1 comment:
Jane L. Hyde said...
Hi there! Rebecca Hyde sent me the link to your blog. I especially love your second post, which I read before I read that it's fiction. I love the part about seeing the sky in squares in the city, and the description of the dog in the park. I also love Gaudy Night and all the rest. It's such an old-fashioned and passionate love story. Like Rebecca, I hope you keep this project going! Best wishes.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Chapter 2. Late September

Ch 2. Late September

Why I'm on a plane heading for Istanbul
They fired me on September 15, almost one week ago to the day. They called it downsizing and gave me some money and a year's free hospitalization. I woke up the next morning, put on jeans and a t-shirt, smiled at my surprised doorman who looked at his watch (it was 9 a.m. and I was late to work) and walked to the open doors of the entrance to the building. And just stood there.
I had nowhere to go.

The sky was a lovely pale blue between the tall buildings across the street. A few seagulls floated against the cloudless blue and slowly moved behind the building on the right. I gazed as they disappeared, thinking once again how much more I enjoy seeing the sky in vertical squares contained between the buildings of my neighborhood than wide open in the country, everywhere, shapeless, without a frame. Pointless. This way made sense. The city made sense. There was always some little thing to pick up, the cleaning or the Sunday paper.

The doorman's footsteps coming from behind signaled that I should start moving or he’d ask questions, so I headed out into the sunlight and walked around the corner to the deli.

Eight years. Where did they go? As I had every morning for eight years, usually a little earlier in the day, I bought a small container of black coffee and a poppy seed bagel with cream cheese. This time instead of grabbing the bus outside the deli door and heading to work, I walked to Central Park as if it were the weekend. I sat myself down on a bench in the shade of the splendid old chestnut tree just inside the entrance and pulled the bagel out of the small paper bag, pulled back the slot on the container of coffee and took a sip.

It was an absolutely gorgeous fall day. I thought, Hey, this isn't so bad. I could have been locked inside the dirty sealed-windows of the huge and ugly vault in midtown Manhattan where I had been employed since my life caved in, hearing the dampened horns and sirens from the streets below, looking at pieces of paper about import tariffs and train schedules in some third-world place I couldn't find on the map, worrying about whether the bitch in the next office was going to find a way to make me want to commit murder that day.

And I would have missed this lovely morning in the park.

A fine-looking black dog ran by, one of those silky, thickly furred ones that look like wolves. I watched it fly past the slow-moving strollers and disappear over the green hill and thought about what a nice life dogs have. Then in my head a sentence spoke itself: "Lucky dog. You always know what to do next," and I had to admit I was scared. It was pretty clear the beautiful fall weather and the nice tree and the nice dog weren't going to see me through.

There I sat, a woman further along in midlife than I was willing to tell anyone, with no husband and no interest in acquiring one, and just enough money to barely pay my rent for one year if I didn't use the phone or go to the movies. No retirement fund. No family. No financial prospects of any kind. And not a remote possibility that I would be able to interview for a job, or even take one if it fell out of a window and hit me in the head.
I couldn't. I don't know why but I knew that was simply a fact.

That's when it occurred to me that I should travel.

"Travel! Ginger, without a job you don't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out," my office friend Adele said on the phone a few hours later that day. "Your money will be gone in three months! Then what will you do?"

"The same thing I'd have to do in twelve months. Hang myself, I guess."

"That's not funny," she said.

But Adele was wrong. It was very funny, funny enough that for the whole week, after I bought the ticket, sub-let the apartment, threw some stuff into a suitcase and boarded the plane for Istanbul, I was still amused.

Looking out the window of the plane at a cheery, endless bright sky above and a floor of snowy cotton clouds below, I realized I had hit 'now or never' time, that time when you finally do the thing you were always afraid to do like burn your bridges, and the thing you always wanted to do like travel around the world. I was in this plane because I chose "Now" but I had a very big problem. Although I was doing the thing I'd always been afraid to do, which was set off into the unknown without a plan or a source of money, I didn't have the slightest idea of what I wanted to do. I had turned my back on the cowardice of Never but I didn't have anything to do Now. That made the prospect of jumping off a cliff or hanging oneself seem almost comforting. And that was amusing.

The good people I'd left behind, the employees at the Hateful Exploitation Corporation, thought I was a great adventurer.

"You will find a beautiful man and he will make you laugh," said a tiny Peruvian woman name Rosa.
"You are a fool," said Roberto, her brother. "Ginger is a profesora, an educated woman. An intellectual."
"A Brainiac," said beautiful, black Angela. "She don't need no man."
"Good thing," I nodded.

How odd, the way they saw me. You'd have to be from the working class to think I was an intellectual. There's an old joke my family used to tell and retell: A middle-aged Jewish man has bought his first boat and is trying on a captain's hat in front of his wife. "Look Becky," he crows, "I'm a captain!"
"To you you're a captain," she answers. "To me you're a captain. But to a captain, you're no captain."

And to an intellectual, I was no intellectual. I wasn't even sure what an intellectual was. At any rate, I had reached the point when it’s more dangerous to stay where you are than to do anything else you can think of. I didn’t expect much would come of my choice but for the moment it was pleasant, finally, after all this tedious time, to have chosen 'now.'

I knew my good mood wouldn’t last. Unlike a 20 year-old striking out into the unknown expecting adventure, longing for excitement, I've been on this earth long enough to know that when you leave someplace with no destination the future can cover your life like an fog that won't let you find your way. I'd been on planes before. Sooner or later I'd arrive and my comfortable sense of movement would come to a halt. But I was safe for at least nine hours.

And I even knew someone, a neighbor who had become an expat in Turkey, a chronically unemployed opera singer, pretty, chubby and blond who had just settled in with what she claimed was "an adorable Turk" in a small town in central Turkey , Cappadocia, wherever the hell that was. My entire knowledge of Turkey, like most Americans', comes from the chilling movie "Midnight Express," about the nightmare of life in a Turkish prison. But I didn't smuggle marijuana, so I figured I was safe.

And my neighbor Pamela said it was wonderful.

"I live in a cave, a real cave! And I have a carpet and pillows and I have my computer plugged into an electrical outlet! It's gorgeous! You have to come and stay with me. Saladin's place is huge!" I imagined standing on an open plain, looking up at a cliff full of open caves, each one full of furniture and electrical appliances plugged into the walls, with Pamela waving to me from the top. And then I imagined myself inside the cave sitting on a beautiful oriental rug looking out onto that great open plain, feeling the comfort of being quiet and far away. It was a nice plan.

I snuggled into the seat and pulled the magazine out of the pocket in front of me, so I could look at the fold-out map of the world tucked in the back pages. Tiny Europe on the left, huge Asia everywhere else, landlocked seas and names from an exotic version of the wild west: Kazak, Uzbek, Tajik, Kirghizistans, huge and blank and flat with only a few of the curved lines that showed the routes of the airline I was flying.

Nobody went to Central Asia.

Toward the bottom of the page was the triangle of India rising up in the north to become the Himalayas, leveling out into the high Tibetan plateau and falling away into a deep desert with a name I’d never heard of. One could fly to all those places from Istanbul. If one had any reason to do so.

The bell dinged and the seatbelt sign went off. Across the narrow aisle a large man moved out of his seat and up above me with an ease that caught my attention. I didn't look up but I could tell he was of a size where he noticed the cramped seating space, and though I could tell without looking that he was neither young nor slim, he moved as smoothly as an athlete as he turned and disappeared down the aisle behind me.

Chapter 1. First Entry

First Entry

I've been waiting way too long to have the time to write this story. Now I want to start. My fictional name is Ginger and the entries you'll find here are also fictional -- excepting everything I'll quote from my wonderful, wonderful old books (most of them found in used bookstores throughthe years and now found on that blessing from heaven, The Internet) about the amazing ancient trade route, The Silk Road.

I have no idea why I am so in love with this region of the world, but there you are. It has fascinated me for many years. Reading about it is like sitting down to talk with a fascinating and learned person. Turning the pages of these books and imagining myself somewhere in the world of their maps is delicious. And so, in a haphazard way, I continue to do it.

You'll find a more organized, respectable body of information in other sites. I'll list them for you (and give you my opinion of them) as we go along.

But my descriptions are for amateurs like me who read the accounts of travelers of long ago and long to see the places they wrote about--until we remember when those accounts were written and remember that those places have changed and we can no longer find what we seek.

So every morning I take my coffee into a little room in my home where I sit down at a small desk piled high with books about the geology and geography and history of that part of the world, and I am transported back into the world I long for, just by reading at a small desk in the mornings.

I've been doing this for many years and have enjoyed myself, but I find that this kind of pastime is like playing tennis without a net: I open my beautiful old books in no order at all, go over the same tracks and think, 'Oh, yes, this is wonderful. I should go more deeply into this one place, this time in history, this particular traveler instead of wandering so randomly from one book to another!' But I never do that. Life intrudes.

But I'm so happy when I read about this area that I just keep doing it. And I make great discoveries. For instance, I had never heard of the Pamir Mountains when I started many years ago, long before that part of the world was in the headlines, back when no one knew where Afghanistan was and Pakistan was still a new country. But I was so intrigued each time I’d find them mentioned here and there, in different texts but without any clear maps, no explanations, just a teasing hint of unknown worlds, that I made it a sort of hobby to find them.

I searched every book I could find for fragments of information. I haunted used bookstores wherever I was for books about the mountains of Central Asia..

And then I found a website that listed the books of hundreds, thousands of used book stores, all over the globe, and I sent for one book after another. I made a tiny clay model of the topography from Xian in China through the Taklamakan Desert to Central Asia, piecing it together from odd little maps and snippets in the books.

[Note: I've found this little model, and as soon as I take a photo of it, I'll put it right here in this entry. That's a promise. In case you're curious, of course, which you very well might not be.]

I'm always trying to understand why people followed this route and not that one. I love finding and copying the precious little bits I find, like the monks and scholars in the dark ages trying to piece together the lost masterpieces of the Greeks and Romans that they found mentioned in this scroll or that. I used to wish I could have been one of those scribes and scholars of the middle ages. I envied what I imagined were their heavenly lives until one day I realized that now, with my life as it has become, I can do exactly the same thing in my own room.

There's such joy in it. I stumble across a brief description about a mountain pass or the source of a river and suddenly a light falls on something I had never been able to figure out: Why does the Indus start on the wrong side of the Himalayas? Do rivers actually disappear suddenly and show up somewhere else? Why would Silk Road travelers go from one place to another along ‘corridors’ no map would show me?

Then, I’d be reading in one of the books I had bought, not looking for an answer, in fact, having forgotten the question, and suddenly, while describing something completely different, the author would reveal the source of the mystery! Every time that happens, I'm as excited as if I had discovered the source of the Nile.

Now, you might ask why I bother with these books now that the Internet has gotten so rich and filled-out that I could find the answer in no time at all. The answer is: the writing. Grateful as I am to wikipedia, you won’t find writing like this in it:

Geologists are agreed that [in the Jurassic] …land masses, with one exception, …drifted slowly into the positions they occupy today. The exception was India, whose movement was neither slow nor localized. For in the space of less than 50 million years India drifted clean across the Sea of Tethys, from the southern hemisphere to the northern, until it crashed into the underbelly of Asia.

The result was spectacular. For India was like a battering-ram. During its voyage north across the Sea of Tethys, it had passed over one of the hot spots in the earth’s crust so that a vast sheet of basaltic magma had been excreted on to it, so that by the time it collided with Asia it consisted almost entirely of rocks where were volcanic and hard…

The underbelly of Asia, in contrast, consisted of rocks which were sedimentary and soft. For the sea bed of Tethys had been rolled up ahead of the advancing mass of India…and it was these folds of sedimentary rock which, as the continents crashed together, were squeezed upward and ever upward – like toothpaste between the contracting walls of a vice – to form the mountains of central Asia…

The Himalayan rivers are an anachronism, for they were there before the mountains (!) …This has led to a very unusual situation. In most ranges, the watershed lies along the line of its highest peaks: that is, if a range runs east-to-west, the rivers on its northern face flow down to the north, and the rivers on ths southern face flow down to the south. This isn’t the case with the Himalaya. Because the rivers were there first (!); and as the mountains welled up around them, they simply kept to their original courses, cutting deep gorges through the soft upthrusting rock.

Some of these, like the Kali Gandaki, a sheer 18,000 feet from riverbed to mountain peak, are the most spectacular on earth. That is why the watershed of the Himalaya is not where one would expect it to be – along the line of the great peaks Nanga Parbat…Annapurna…Everest…but some 100 miles to the north (!!) and 10,000 feet lower. (!!!)

He goes on to say that the great rivers of India – the Sutlej, the Indus and the Brahmaputra – all have their source not on the near side of the high mountains where you find them fon the maps flowing south down to the sea, but on the north side of those peaks, the wrong side of the mountains! Look at those names: Everest, Nanga Parbat – yes, the highest mountains on earth, but the rivers were not stopped.

Well, when I read that I lost my breath. I’ve seen it described since, but not well; you could almost miss the explanation in the text. Lovely Mr. Ian Cameron turned one of the slowest motions a human can imagine into a crashing drama, and he explained what I had seen on the map.

I wanted to celebrate. Let the specialists scorn us hobbyists, let them love the more arcane discoveries of their learned fields, no one can feel the joy of the ignorant person who longs to understand when she discovers something so astonishing.

And the language of the greatest specialists, the ones who I call ‘Popularizers,’ those who aren't content to talk only to each other but who want to talk to us, people like me, because they have kept their passion for their work, their language breaks open barriers of incomprehensible details and offers us, the outsiders, the hidden meaning we long for.

So I love Ian Cameron, and if he is still alive and needs something, I would be very happy to try to get it for him, just because he told me – in the way that he told me – why the great Indus starts on the wrong side of the mountains.

I bet I've lost you, haven't I? You’ve probably moved to some other weblog paragraphs ago. How I have wanted to share this with others. But it's not possible, I understand that now. When I try, I see their eyes glaze over. It's hard to understand that not everyone is thrilled to discover that the major rivers that rise north of the Himalayas -- including even the mighty Indus -- flow south, right through the Himalayas because they were there first!

And, think of this, the sub-continent of India is still slamming (in slow motion, of course) into Asia and driving the mountains higher, creating a rain shadow on the far side, creating one of the driest places on earth. A desert called "You go in and you can't come out." A desert that didn't used to be there! Now, think of this: that desert was rainy and full of trees at the same time that the New Testament was being written! That's like yesterday!

Ah, that's so wonderful.

And this is what a trader from China had to push through to sell his wares and buy others from traders who had come from Rome. And it came to be called The Silk Road.

And along this Silk Road were these amazing cultures in Central Asia, nations, empires even, and traveling nuns and scholars, idealists and assassins, Buddhist artists who left caves full of devotional art 1000 years ago, even 2000 -- paintings of the Buddha dressed in classical Greek drapery! That's got what I call a 'Wow factor' of ...I don't know, a big one. And traders. In caravans. Who carried many things, but the most special stuff, the stuff that made it all the way to Rome (although the traders who started out in China weren't even sure Rome existed, they just handed things off to the next trader) -- was silk.

Silk of many colors that flowed over the shameless bodies of wealthy Roman women, making them look naked. Better than naked. And it was so desireable that gold flowed out of the empire back to China diminishing the coffers of gold hard won by conquest until the senators cried to the emperors, Let them buy no more!

Of course, the emperor didn't dare say any such thing.

Well, you may not be reading anymore, but if you've hung on, if you're still here, maybe I can interest you in this thing I love so much. Maybe I can pull you in with a story or two. With the help of my books, I will take myself on fictional journeys into the past to places that are real to me, even though they no longer exist.

So, let me introduce myself. My name is Ginger. My story starts in reality, just a year ago on the day I unexpectedly lost my dreary job at the Miserable Import-Export Company, a small, dark place where I worked like a zombie, unable to extricate myself or do much of anything for way too many years. Never mind why, for now. Maybe I'll talk about it later. It has very little to do with what happened next.

Somehow, like a miracle, the day came that I was free. To celebrate this bright moment, I decided to use my last bit of money to go on a trip to that lost world I loved to read about, even though I knew it was gone. But somehow, for a moment here and there, I discovered a new kind of hope, and I had nothing better to do, anyway.

**Ian Cameron, Mountains of the Gods, 1984
(I haven't learned how to put a link in a blog yet, I'm ashamed to say, but go to and look for the book. They've got a lot of copies!!!)