‘When You Are Old’ in Xichang, China
Written at the close of last year’s “Spring Festival”, the Year of the Rooster; and released today, celebrating the first day of this year’s Chinese New Year…. The Year of the Dog
“When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book…..”
– W.B. Yeats, Irish poet and scholar
Xichang, China is not a place for the casual western tourist. Though you will find comfort there. The comfort of which I am writing is that of knowing there are sunny places far from the reaches of overdeveloped grandeur. That there are quiet gardens shaded by long-armed Darongshu trees and flowering Sanjiaomei. That there is a place you can go in safety and yet be so culturally a stranger that you are regarded as a novelty, or by some, a new friend. And, that there is a place not forbidden to foreigners, yet you are likely to be the only foreigner in a city of half a million people.
How then would a writer be bold enough to offer an Irish carol to begin a travel piece on the inward reaches of Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan Province, China? This will be revealed as we proceed.
Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is the time of year most families try to reunite. These reunions have taken on greater significance in recent times due to the fact that many small town and rural folk have migrated to China’s colossal cities to find steady employ and for the pursuit of their own happinesses. During New Year, which lasts approximately 15 days until its culmination at Lantern Festival, it is important for the citizens go back to the roots of their lives.
Many families vacation to warmer climes during these holidays. Thailand is a prime destination for many Chinese. But because of its mountainous elevation which produces sun filled days, Xichang is fast becoming a popular domestic destination for the Chinese. For the time being, however, it is far off the radar of the Western traveler. In the four days I spent on her buses and in her eateries and walking her broad streets, I was the only Caucasian to be seen. This is the heart of China.
One must be prepared to travel here. Other than a few greeting phrases, hardly anyone speaks English at all in Xichang. So, if you don’t speak Mandarin, you may need to choose a hotel with an English speaking staff or hire a translator to travel with you. In my case, I traveled with a friend from Chongqing. Though her English was rudimentary, we were able to communicate through a translation app on our cell phones. We also communicated through WeChat which is the Chinese version of Instant Messenger. Google Maps came in handy as well.
We flew to Xichang on China Eastern Air from Chongqing. The flight was 4 hours long and cost roughly $600 apiece. Xichang is a mountain oasis of sunlight, and the ridges of the mountains contrast sharply with the valley below and bright blue waters of Qionghai Lake.
The hotel we chose for our lodgings, Tengyunlou, was not the most comfortable place imaginable. But they provided a substantial complimentary breakfast every morning and it was also situated approximately halfway between the airport and the lake. We paid less than 1,000 yuan (less than $60 per night) and stayed for 3 nights. There are more luxurious hotels in Xichang however. The Qionghai Bay Bonreal and Yijia International are likely choices, but often sell out early.
The primary focus of the trip was, of course, Qionghai Lake. This 98,000 acre gem lies adjacent to the city (whose buildings can be seen from its opposite shore) and below the Lushan Mountains which are preserved as a national park. A high speed railway is under construction due to the area’s burgeoning popularity. So, our first afternoon, my friend, Xiaolin and I boarded the 14 bus on Chang’an Middle Road. The fare was 1 yuan a piece, or about 17 cents per person.
At first the ride seemed tedious and was so crowded with people that I wished we had hired a taxi. But when I opened my eyes wide enough, I began to behold the beauty of the citizenry pressed against me.
Relinquishing our seats for a couple of ladies dressed in colorful, tribal cloth garments, ladies of a “poorer minority”, I became illumined of their dark, creased faces and the knowing grins at the edges of their thin lips. They wore everyday turbans… but of a vibrant blue, a shade lighter than lapis, but deep like lapis. With them were the large baskets of fruit and cashews they carried to market.
Behind these ladies was a sweet little girl, slouched down in her seat in slumber, mouth agape….exhausted in some surmisable way.
Another small girl, perhaps 7 years old, was eager to make my acquaintance. She practiced her English phrases on me: “Hello. It’s very nice to meet you.” She and her grandmother were going to the Lake to play with her water gun and, eventually, to take part in a pageantry there with other ladies of all different ages. These ladies, beautiful en masse, adorned traditional costumed gowns and gathered together for pictures. They giggled and fawned at the sight of an American taking photos of them with their beloved lake as the background. Soon they promoted me to the status of being their official photographer, handing me their camera pads to do the honors.
There is a pleasant restaurant near the pier at the lake, Yichi Random House. Our waiter was a Tibetan young man named Wang Gang. He was very helpful in the selection of our lunch which consisted of melt-in-your-mouth buckwheat dumplings, Sichuan (spicy) sausage, and Tangyuan Seed Cake.
The bus ride back to the Tengyunlou Hotel was as crowded as it had been on the outgoing journey. But, perhaps because this was indeed a journey, another adventure into friendships was to be experienced. Two young girls standing beside Xiaolin and me, swaying like reeds to the motion of the bus, kept furtively glancing at me with nervous tiny smiles.
I noticed that one of them was wearing a T-shirt which read, “New York”, so I remarked that I too was a product of the United States. They immediately began asking questions. Using our translation device, I told them all matters of our largest city.
But then we went on to things more immediately important, such as their names and ages. Ten years old, these two friends told me in voices sweet with eagerness that they were Zhangjiaqi and Songyixing.
They wanted to know all about me: my hometown, where had I traveled in China, and even my age. Their smiles were so contagious that everyone on the bus who took notice also now was smiling. I asked Songyixing’s older sister if I could take their picture. They wanted to pose for a picture with me in it too……..And, they asked for my address so that we could become pen pals, even though neither knew how to read or write English. At least, not yet!!!
Before we departed the bus, my two young friends advised me to visit the giant pandas in Chengdu. I asked them why. Their answer???? “Because they are so CUTE !”
That night we walked from our hotel past Chang’an Middlle Road to an area of Hangtian Road which was filled with smoke. It was as if the the neighborhood had caught fire. The fog parted revealing individual bar-b-que pits at which families and friends gathered for dinner. Three or four restaurants on this side of the street specialized in this “Huopen Bar-b-que”.
The outdoor tables here convert into independent pits. The waiter pushes a basket of hot wooden coals under the grate of the low table and spreads an oil over the grate. The food is then brought out in batches for the guests to cook to their preferences. We seared strips of pork that night and baked radishes and eggplant, cabbage and artichoke. Then we took the meat and veggies off the grill using chopsticks and dropped the foods into a bowl of dry spices, such as a “dry rub”, before consuming. We ate these spicy delights as fireworks began to explode above the trees beside our table.
Our second day in Xichang we traveled by The 14 Bus again to another area of the lake called Menglishuixiang. This place had wooden rafts manned by local men who used bamboo poles to power their crafts into a reeded lagoon. Families held picnics on the shores. A young man strummed a guitar and sang a soft lullaby whose lyrics, though in Chinese, were intoxicatingly catchy. I began to softly sing the words to myself……
It was amazingly addictive. I could not get the tune out of my head. Xiaolin translated to me that this song, sung in Chinese, was a rendition of Yeats’ earthly poem, “When You Are Old.”
“When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
and nodding by the fire,
take down this book,
and slowly read and dream of the soft look
your eyes had once,
and of their shadows deep.
The knowledge of this stood me up as if I were struck in a boxing ring. How could a culture such as this be privy to one of Ireland’s nobel laureates? It turns out that Chinese songwriter, Zhao-Zhao around 2015 was trying to match the mood of Yeats’ words to the perfect melody for a gift to his aging mother and, to his surprise, he came up with a wildly popular song for his brethren. It matches Yeats’ earthy words with its ethereal, yet somber air, perfectly. It is a song which has brought tears to many of eyes, including my own, as it touches upon our sense of mortality.
We made friends with more young children. They were eager to tell me their names and ask me mine. Their parents urged these 3 and 4 year old beauties to shake hands with me, or to give me a hi-five, and to allow me to take their pictures.
Somewhere during this day, at some point of inward reflection on how the children of China yearn to know of our western culture, I understood the irony of Yeats’ lines. “When you are old”, one might say, “take down this book and read the young, smiling faces who trust you with your wisdom….who long for the brightness of their future…..who still can see the soft look your eyes had once, and who look beyond their shadows deep. It was at this point that I knew of what I would dedicate this article.
I can write about The Year of the Rooster, about how people who are born in rooster years are active, talkative, amusing and loyal. I can write about the boat ride in Menglishhuixiang and how the male passengers would caw loudly across the waters, poorly imitating in sound but perfectly matching in strut, the heralded rooster.
And I can even write of fireworks, how they were invented during the Tang dynasty in the 7th century to scare away evil spirits and still used today for Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. But it was somewhere during this day, the day of Dangnilaule, that I decided to dedicate my article to the New Year of China, which is her children. ….There is such a thirst here in China for her peoples to know, understand, and be kindred of American people. And none more than the sweet, bright personalities of the children.
There was a 13 year old girl we met that afternoon in Xichang, a server in a restaurant called Sanwei Small Pot. Sunny was her name. When she turned around after setting our table and saw my face, I could see her heart leap from her eyes. She was openly moved to see an American. She was as thrilled as thrill could be to use her broken English on me. We met Sunny’s mother who also was a server there. Sunny asked if she and I could take a picture together.
We talked of many things she wanted to know. When Sunny remembered that she had to get back to work, I asked her, through our translations on WeChat, if she would pray for my sister who has cancer.
She was overjoyed with this responsibility I had given her; and she nobly responded that she would pray for my sister’s full recovery. In this world and in this frame of mind…..all things are possible!
Our last full day in Xichang was spent at the village of Yueliangwan with its outdoor market stands and picturesque views. We drank bamboo juice freshly squeezed by vendors whose presses drain the juice from bamboo stalks into waiting cups. The juice is airy and lightly sweet.
We also purchased tickets for a tram ride to a small fishing area known as Xiaoucun, or “Moon Bay”. During the ride we enjoyed the sculpted landscapes. Small walking bridges in the distance arched over sunlit channels. Reeds with bushy cottontails swayed softly as far as the eye could see.
There is a Buddhist temple about a kilometer walk from the tram stop at Moon Bay. But we chose to have lunch first at a small outdoor restaurant under the branches of a Darongshu tree. Its arms reached out over our heads to shade the lake’s lapping waters at the shoreline. We sipped rose petal and chrysanthemum flowered glasses of water. Adolescents sat nearby playing card games and supping from hot pots, the traditional Sichuan meal. Parents engaged in soft conversation. Children used tiny, hand-held fishing nets to scoop minnows from the lake’s edges.
There are gardens to wander here among the thick Darongshu trunks. Fuchsia colored Sanjiaomei flowers bud out, above the shade, into the afternoon light. The paths through the gardens wander aimlessly to give the feeling of restfulness. The echoes of Yeats can be heard in these gardens …..if you listen to the warm breeze:
“How many loved your moments of glad grace,
and loved your beauty with love false or true.
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
and loved the sorrows of your changing face……”
And to the pilgrim soul in you, Qionghei Lake offers her sparkling landscapes. They are scapes of watercolors, of small footbridges arching moonlike over sunlit channels; of reeds swaying their cottontails in gentle warm breezes; and of azure skies overhead…..and it is a scape of children’s faces, faces glancing furtively, then brightly at you. Sunny faces with eyes that smile widely and without reservation despite your foreign visage and in spite of your strange cultural habits…..smiles that are contagious and will take you from New Year to New Year to New Year.
Happy Chinese New Year,
John Syron in collaboration with Zheng Xiaolin ….Feb. 2017 (Year of the (fire) Rooster)