Thursday, September 6, 2007

Chapter 15 - Reading from Fairley

Sept 1, 2007
I love this book. I'm glad I have it to read because I haven't heard a word from you in weeks. I know you're nearby in some way, but you know how the black dog sneaks up on me, and he always announces his coming with this kind of anxious worry, even fear.

The book is soothing, wonderful. It pushes away everything else and lets me into sunny places where there is no worry.

Today's Essay from The Lion River:

The Portuguese missionaries who came in the middle ages weren’t happy in Tibet, but to me it sounds like heaven.

“The landscapes are immense. The air is thin and sharp and the details of shapes and colours, even at long distances, show brilliantly clear.

“The biggest flakes were as big as the fleece of wool,
They came flying down like birds.
The small ones were the size of peas and mustard seeds,
They came down rolling and whirling.

Ivan, these missionaries missed their calling! This is beautiful!

The greatness of the snowfall was beyond all expression,
High up it covered the crest of the glacier ranges,
Low down it buried, up to their tops, the trees of the forest.
The black hills appeared to be whitewashed.
The frost flattened the billowy lakes
And the blue running streams were hidden under the ice.

What blue running streams? Oh, look:

“The east-to-west slope of the western Tibetan plateau…is gentle and the Indus flows shallow there, clear blue except in summer spate when its water greys and thickens with the ice-melt. In winter the river freezes and the ground is blanketed with snow.”

Ah, now I see where I have been. How I love to understand the terrain. And how I would have loved to take more geography in college. My friends thought I was crazy.

“Even if you don’t have to?! Why? It’s just learning the capitols of all the states,” Mary, one of my artist friends had said.

But she was wrong. It was about climate and corridors and barriers and soil types and why people lived the way they did in one place, and differently in another. It was history with a body.

But I was married and pregnant and graduated soon after -- a period that became less and less happy and during which, as I discovered many years later, this same artist friend was sleeping with every one of our friends husbands, mine included. Amazing how blind you can be. Anyway, geography was set aside for many years for great love and great sorrows and some stupid, meaningless dramas. What a mistake you make when you choose the wrong partner. But, to be honest, I never saw the right one.

Until now.

I got on that train in Kyrgyzstan and I rattled with it on its way over hills toward mountains to find my donkeys and these friendly (if weird) Sherpa-type handlers (who have demanded that I teach them English, which actually should be fun). Even on the train I understood that I should have gotten to Tibet in the spring before the glaciers melted. But, the closer I got, the clearer it became that it was already too late. Now, as we walk beside the the water, along a less gradual downward grade, the clear blue stream is fed from other streams, rushing in from the ice-melt, swollen, grey and rocky and changing the nature of the stream. This is how rivers are built. Amazing to see it before one's eyes. It's powerful and quite moving, but it's not pretty.

The same thing was happening in my mind. My brain was churning and not clear. My heart, too.

I never told you this then, Ivan, so I think I should mention it now. Here's the entry from my letter to you in my journal of that day:

" ...I don’t know where you are and I’m getting a little frightened for you. For me, too.

But at the next stop, some hole-in-the-ground joyless train stop in the middle of nowhere, I was handed a narrow package through the window, wrapped in your telltale brown paper and tied with rough string – a parcel, as you always call such things, which I love. (It takes me back to childhood Victorian novels). I smoothed my hands over its surface and tore it open, carefully avoiding any part where your pen had written. I could see your hand holding that green fountain pen, moving over the brown paper, writing names and addresses, from and to.

As usual, the thought went through my mind: how the hell did you find me here?

Folding the paper and tucking it with the rough string into a corner of my satchel, I looked at the narrow, dark red hard-bound book. An etching of some mountain tops surrounding a lake was engraved half-way down the page and I could barely make out a few written characters:

’10,000 ft.’

At the top of the cover, surrounded by a bright gold-leaf oval, were the words, also in gold: Physical Geography of WESTERN TIBET ,and below that, the name H. Strachey.

It was very formal, a study commissioned by the government, (you flatter me, Ivan, to think I can read such technical stuff) but Strachey revealed rather clearly in his preface that he was plenty pissed off:

"The following Memoir contains the purely geographical part of a report submitted to the Indian Government after my return from the Tibetan Boundary Commission, which was deputed to Ladak by the Governor-General (Lod Hardinge) in 1847. The diplomatic object of this commission was to define officially the territorial boundary between the trans-Himalayan possessions of our new ally and dependent Maharaja Gulab Singh, and the Tibetan provinces subject to China:

but the Chinese Tibetan authorities declining, as usual, to hold any intercourse with the British, or to admit us within their territory, our commission, consisting of Major A. Cunningham, Dr. T. Thomson, and myself, was admitted only through the British Hill Provinces into Ladak, and left to employ itself during the two years between the summers of 1847 and 1849 in such general geographical explorations as were still open to us. "

Wow. Temper, temper. He gets worse:

"The barbarous anarchy of the mountain tribes on the N.W. fronier beyond the Indus offering as great an obstacle to travelling on that side as the jealousy of the Chinese Government on the E., we found ourselves confined to Lakak and Balti, and the neighboring Himalayan provinces in the hands of Gulab Singh, regions already visited and described by Moorcroft and Trebeck, and Mr. Vigne, so that we could only collect further information in the same field, without effecting much new exploration."

Well, I guess he was cranky for a reason. Were those others he mentioned interesting? I remember the name Moorcroft and some kind of terrible story. Should I switch to history?

I’ll copy this into a letter and read this book until we hit the next ‘food’ stop and mail it."

Of course, things are so different now.

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