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Notes Toward a Visit to Hohhot, the capital city of the Chinese state of Inner Mongolia, to visit the family and home of exiled writer Tumen Ulzii Bayunmend
Tumen texts me just to see what I am doing sometimes. I am cleaning my clothes! He says. He speaks no English and his Mongolian is from Inner Mongolia, so the sounds are different. I've cleaned my house today, he texts me in Mongolian.
At a place near my house I order borscht and Tumen orders us both tall yellow beers.
he is haggard and hungover and misses his wife and child. He means he wants to leave Ulaanbaatar. He means to go write somewhere where he can live with his family, out from the reach of the Chinese government. I just want to be together with them; it's not right to be apart, he says. And I want to leave here.
When I get across to him that my boyfriend just broke up with me he says many things. My vocabulary in Mongolian is small; accordingly, the words he uses are simple: you have a good heart and a good head, he says, I helped him, and I will write books, and another man will come. He says Whoa! You will be a famous poet! I don't exactly understand the correlation but Ulaanbaatar can grind one down sometimes even when one is not living in political exile; I take belief like charcoal tablets where I can find it, with that kind of relief and anticipation of pain dying down amid the turbulence and smog.
I think about these conversations I have with Tumen. They are outside the more concerted work we've done to get him noticed by the UNHCR and PEN Freedom to Write. Who is comforting my silly sadness over another couple of men who didn't treat me well. An exile. When I made sure what was needed for Tumen's UNHCR Refugee status to come through done, and the status came, Tumen insisted on buying my ticket to Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia, which is in China. Where he lived before the police raided his house and office because of the books he'd written about Chinese government and its erosion of Inner Mongolian heritage and rights. Where his wife still lives, and, he says, is eager to have me.
Tumen always notices when I do not have make up on and says it looks good. He always notices my face; when I have a rash from some cleaning tissue from the train he asks about it and whether I have medicine.
Tumen has a bare apartment. He just moved into it. He gets beer especially for me. He knows I do not like the usual vodka. B will later tell me very directly that what Tumen spent hours emotionally telling you about how Inner Mongolians are misunderstood by Outer Mongolian (and both Tumen and Uchida have said this about Buryat Mongolians as well as Inner Mongolians), is not true. B admits he is no history expert, but he is very sure of this.
Tumen says his daughter was one of the 10,000 out of 200,000 students to test into the best university in China, so she does not want to leave if he is resettled, so will she be able to study somewhere good if he gets a teaching post in the western world?
Into the milky tea Tumen puts barley. Which makes sense to you; it's like breakfast cereal.
I don't like to eat alone. There's no point to making food if you're alone, no fun in it.
His wife said it in her apartment in Hohhot. He says it here in the light that's getting into his eyes so he squints and the waitress brings him a bowl of Mongolian noodle soup and me fish and cabbage. If you have another beer I will, he says, and gives me the flash drive that dropped onto the floor of his friends van when he was taking me home from the train station.
An unbelievable rose globe looming above the pregnant building on Sukhbaatar Square.
An incomparable globe.
These days never happened.
In the land of never happened I share a train compartment with three men in jackets. One of them brought a crate of beer. The other two don't know each other either.
Wait. You are made of energy of the divine but don't shuffle the order you were given.
The first two talk across from each other when you enter the compartment with Tumen's friend, the young lawyer who loosens his tie in traffic on the way here, which you (no, use I)
The one who held your book heavy pack upright while the last passenger lies down, hands braided like praying. The train yawns along, looping like two people taking it slow.
Treat yourself gently, comes a message from a friend.
Dusky marsh, trees up geometric land formations.
The backpack helping praying one, the first to bed, barefoot, is the one to peer at my page. "Boroo gar," meaning left-handed, apparently, either means rain hand, mistake hand, or both.
"Meant to be here" presupposes destiny--thus my problem with it.
Making music out of the world with enlightened language as objects present themselves, passive and aggressive by turns.
"Amerik okhin!" he says. So we have an American girl on board with us. The lights shut off, shut back on, then dim. The grime comes off my hands as I adjust my curtains, curl them in on themselves to see the hanging rose globe.
I went running today (gym girls who smile at me) so when I push my knees together the very lower of my back cracks.
Different sounds in their speech--is it inner Mongolian? Inner Mongolian-accented Chinese?
Tumen Ulzii is waiting in a suit to walk me to his young lawyer friend's car.
His wife is strip searched at the border.
No, wrong order.
He gives me toothpaste and wine for her.
The one with the case of beer asks my name. I have switched with one of them so I can be a private island up top.
"Min", I say, dropping the g at the end as I have grown hip to doing.
"What kind of nam is that?"
I try to tll them the story behind the name, of my brother giving me "Ming! Ming!" because he was only two and that was the character from Rikki Tikki Tavvi (Mingaling) whose name he could pronounce. On the other bunk the first to sleep is sawing logs.
It doesn't make sense to me. And I am not talking about logic or even words. Radiate love.
After asking me for my Mongolian name and learning I don't have one they immediately call me "Shou Ming"--"Jijig Ming" in Mongolian--"little Ming." How old am i? 23? I have a daughter who is 24, says the carpenter. Or maybe he is a contractor. He's been in Ulaanbaatar for 3 months working on three 18-story buildings.
They ask me if ill drink the beer they gave me. The big tiger--though Tumen never chooses Tiger if Mongolian beer is available. The guy under me holds up a plastic water bottle. To cheer? No, to drink--it's vodka in there, not water. When will I ever learn.
Tumen positioning the napkin and the salt away from each other to indicate where I am and where I will be, romantically.
I ask him for my newspaper back, pouting, when he grabs it. You're bad today, he says in Mongolian. He tells me how when he was 30 with a 3 year old daughter he fell in love with a 25 year old woman, and she is in Ulaanbaatar now, but it was a long time ago and they both made their choice.
Hohhot is dusty, windy, and a little chilly. Against dusty sun and the light fixtures that look like dandelions the flag flies at half mast. The pressure on my bladder as the same woman who met my eyes like a hawk when I handed her the sheets then had a talking crush on me on the hallway because of my eyes and then chased me out of the bathroom passes, her job and shift over for the time being. During the night sometimes the man in the opposite bunk was sitting cross legged in his paisley long underwear. Each time it always looked the same out--rock, sand, gobi, pre-dawn.
I wait in the cold gusts sitting on my bag on the side of the train station. A team of forest green suited police were there to greet us, standing between the train and log-laden cars on the next track. They shone flashlights on the floor and roof of the train hallway, felt my bed nonchalantly, asked me for an entry card I was never given, then shrugged and walked away. Now they file into a van.
Pushy taxi drivers. A woman with a gauze scarf pulled over her face as well as her face, smushing her features.
In a mall sort of deserted outlet place. Tumen's friend, who picked me up after a while (Tumen called me phone, which in Hohhot still works, to say to stay where I was), is a doctor with an office in one of the spaces. The other spaces in the warehouse are for all manner of things but mostly cheap clothing. There's a picture on the wall of a wolf and a Chinese emperor guy. Calendars. When I ask what kind of emch he is, he points to them. his wife mops the floor. A sterile smell. Their daughter, and 8 yr old in a pink shirt, black pants, and clackety black flats scurries by, a white mop dog in her arms. She plays jump rope with a long, rubber rope in the wide warehouse hallway with the other girls. Some of them sit and whisper on the sofa next to me, finally asking me how old I am. If sleep is a postmodern, surreal thing, on the sofa in turns, vibrating white light and girls clacking and jumping rope. The mother and daughter put on their jackets and leave. The light is never direct. There's too much dust for that. Believe in abundance. Every red flag flying at half mast. The three men I know make up the miracle in my present but I do not want to talk to them anyway. Dinosaur statues on the way into Hohhot, twenty of them sweeping the landscape over hundreds of yards. All is well in the world, reads the meditation. Life is unfolding as it is meant to. Chorus of schoolchildren trapped under buildings for a third day. Dust forms a globe of the sun, it always does. Stew in the screen of the mind. As so many hours unfold that the discomfort just is; the car ride, I accept, will never end. First a flat expanse, then rows of trees thrashing (don't wipe boogers on her clean wood tub) , then as it grows dark the great sleeping-boar mountain (don't get red pen on Ona's white sheet).
They drop me off first. (Say thank you to the moon.) (Hanging full above the university track field behind his apartment.) the first thing you notice is how much less tired, how much happier, her face is as you glimpse it through the window before exiting the taxi. The wisdom already lines the inner border of you. the moment on the island in the attic when I teared up from joy ; the moment I saw the girl who killed herself in the sunshine in my heart; the moment after the car crash when it all vibrated.
Tumen's wife is happy and affectionate--why wasn't she like this before? Was she exhausted from the train ride she had taken the day before from Hohhot to Ulaanbaatar? Was she worried? Had she been detained again? I don’t know the words to all these questions. Plus her dialect, the Inner Mongolian, as it contrasts with the Outer I learned, makes even the most basic communication difficult. I don't know if the questions are appropriate to ask, or even if it's safe to in this apartment.
The walls are turquoise. She sits across from me. She worked today; it's Monday and she is a geography teacher. She mixes sweet yogurt and grain. Gives me milky tea and a can of beer. Cuts the mutton for me from the bone when I show myself to be incompetent. The mutton is the best thing I have ever tasted and I swore I was done with mutton. I look at her face and her daughter's room, where I will sleep. This is where he cannot be. This is where he cannot be.
After the day of outing she lets down her hair and it frames her face in a way that makes me understand why the word pretty came into being. In the museum of inner Mongolia they already have a graphic design poster with images of the earthquake. The largest complete dinosaur skeleton in the world and the guide accompanies you for it though she knows nothing about it because she is actually stationed on the floor below and she wont shut up so you retreat until she leaves. Eej alternately pushes and pulls you by the elbow and you are irritated and unable to help it. She took the day off to spend with you. unable to enter the day, to shake thoughts of other people in other places either, so it spirals into miserable self-loathing there in the museum where the stuffed animals always look vaguely confused. Write to take another breath, then another--street screeches--thinking words to someone means one has not gotten where one needs to--in the restaurant thank god I come awake though I shuvuu shig iddeg ("eat like a bird")--felt like puking in the morning when she fed me--the present presents nothing to give you pain only your mind and its attachments form the specters--bed on the verge of breaking--she said I drew a picture of my heart and it's in poor shape--and if I had a choice I wouldn’t know which road to take--to get this taloned creature off my back--to flatten all the pennies on my track--the picture of my heart is leaking black--on the kitchen table--futile to want the connection dreamed of, in which one does not construct oneself but one simply is--the cottonwood leaves clapper outside--I like this hour, I tried to tell her: the most popular Mongolian restaurant in Hohhot and we are the only customers--waiters walk by singing, and towards the back the cooks sleep with their heads in their arms--a teaset shaped like genitals in the museum--a cup of coffee in "mike dong," as she says: McDonalds (and there is not one Mike Dong, KFC, or Starbucks in all of Outer Mongolia)--taxis like a school of fish outside the train station--they give you a large faux-denim backpack in which to put your purse, then they lock it with a sensor for the duration of your stay in the bookstore--in the front of the museum was a huge piece of topaz that supposedly looks like an eagle, which supposedly looks like the state of Inner Mongolia--the museum is huge, new, built in 2007, so Tumen Ulzii hasn't seen it--behind his house, the university track field, at duck kids run around, playing ball--Fewer people in Hohhot than in Ulaanbaatar, but Hohhot is worlds more developed--Clean, wide streets, like a Chinese Seoul--Women taxi drivers--"handle yourself gently"--"If it's there it's supposed to be, isn't it?"--dream of kids from my elementary school piling alligators onto a wolf--wake up to her opening the door without knocking.
Outside, on the university field, a candlelight vigil is being held on the concrete track. On the ground the candles form the shape of a heart.
Tumen's niece and her brother arrive during breakfast. I can see Tumen in his nephew's eyes. He is 20 according to himself, 19 according to his sister. He puts mutton in his milky tea; she puts cheese in hers. She is, of course, perfect, hair in a swept side ponytail. They take me back to the museum, to the 3rd floor, of song and dance traditions and laughable Chinese translations. A sunny day outside, a day that took forever to get started--the niece's knock was assimilated into my dream as someone knocking on a car window--palpably annoyed at Eej more than once. Internet lounge where I spent the better part of an hour with no excuse instead of out seeing Hohhot (handle yourself gently) to lunch where they keep ladling food out of the hotpot and I realize I just have to say no and let the food pile up--all green and the beer opening like a gunshot--the teacher who knows enough English to explain the train to me: first a 10 hour layover then a 4 or 5 hour one. I tell them I will sleep and read during the 10 hours rather than disturb the doctor and his family again and they won't hear of it but I am adamant--she has fried up our leftover green beans with meat and rice--when I talk to Tumen on the phone my voice goes up a register--on the way home from the park, T shirts hanging, people eating at the bbq stands. Tumen calls Eej while we're walking but something is wrong with the phones. To add to the pink river of human history with anything from hieroglyphics to doubt. Godisnowhere. She insists on coming to the park. I had wanted to go run alone instead of being pulled and cattled--we saw a movie and I let her pull me along after, thinking again, thinking, again, that I am a blessed and beloved daughter of the world--I am short with her, with them as they ay a 10 hr layover is too long to wait on the train--I live alone in Mongolia, I say, to which their response is that my 10 hour layover will be me alone in China--the park has it all, teenagers playing ball and a group of middle aged powerwalkers. Young hip couples in one anothers' arms, girls with mullets, girls in skinny jeans. I used to come here with Tumen Ulzii, she says. We would walk for an hour together every night around this time and talk. About what? I ask fifteen minutes later after I have jogged the track while she walked it. His writing, she says. literature. In the woods she wended through only to turn at the curb and enter them again I uncover what I half-felt before, that my role is as medium, that there is no experience I have that is not to write about--though that's not exactly right--god did the air smell good on that little path--the present is miraculous--the cheerleading-like gaggle of girls, teens on the bleachers, two on the track learning to rollerblade. She walked, looking back periodically to check on me as I stretched. I asked if I could look at the vigil underway in the center of the loop of track. Fewer candles than yesterday; the flags went back up from half-mast yesterday. A girl approaches shyly in fits and starts with two lit candles to where Eej and I are standing at a distance. Please come, she says to me, little with big eyes. The students all look like Williamsburg hipsters, leggings, mullets, and all. They sing a Chinese nationalist song. I remember the songs at vigils post-9/11. Realize how ignorant it is to write off Chinese nationalism. Didn’t realize how scarce foreigners are here in Hohhot. They are agricultural university students. After I join the circle I see that the candles set upon the ground on top of Dixie cups spell something but I don't know any Chinese besides thank you, so when the kids speaking and holding papers say something about me I don’t know until all dark eyes turn my way. A tall boy comes and stands next to me when the pixie girl can't quite understand me nor I her. Say what you feel, about the earthquake, he says. I am here to--I begin in a small voice --Speak to everyone, he encourages. I look up at the eyes, I am here to honor the spirits of the dead and grieve with you, I say. Thank you, they say together.
Some moments of grace are that immediate, pure, and full.
In the park, crowded with people and children for whom many empty rides trundled round and round, incredible amounts of pollen tufts fell and drifted along like piano notes. A girl sang her heart out in the very corner of the park, next to piles and piles of shingles.
A little boy fishing in a shallow pool. Haughty looks from those power walkers.
I see less and less of a difference between an abandoned power plant and monastic ruins.
Sunrise all to myself. Everyone else in the compartment was sleeping. Had seen the pink along the horizon for a while. If it's there it's supposed to be, isn't it?then the gold bar, milking around flush with the horizon. Fished around in the cardboard box Eej packed with a week's worth of food for me for an apple. When I looked up again it was a rectangle of gold light with rounded corners. Watched it detach like an egg from an ovary under the microscope in that video kids are made to watch. Burns on the retina exact as hole puncher detritus. Remember: you are with yourself. Realized after a while of staring at it that I could only to so because the sun-spot of burn had layered over it, the sun spot hole puncher detritus.
Somewhere in this train car is a guy who was Eej's student. She's a geography teacher, which means she teaches what people of different regions eat, wear, (here they have sheep, she gives as an example, but in Argentina they don't, because it's too hot). The men keep talking to me. He came in where I was miserable in my just woke up and unable to move state--had no sense of the hour; we were in the huge warehouse where the change the bogeys on the bottom of the train at the border and the clangs resound.
Last night Eej and her niece stood outside the train window, as did the families of the other 3 men in our compartment. We crowded round. One of my companions looked immediately to me like a band member--the loose half open shirt, the shaggy hair longer in back--and I would feel worse about profiling him if I hadn't turned out to be right. He's an opera singer, actually, coming to Ulaanbaatar for a show. A man with a cigarette in his mouth and similar hair and face to the opera singer comes to the window, grinning.
Your little brother? I ask.
For the ten hour layover I step out into the high sunlight of Erlain and see the only other white people I've seen on the train. They rushed passed with their packs the night before in the rush for seats. Shan, Matt, Jess, and Susie. Shan and Matt are a young British couple who just finished their A levels and are headed to university next year--he to Manchester, she to a London school of osteopathy. Jess skipped university, she's from Australia (finally! The opera singer, who refused to sing last night--after the grandpa of the compartment asked me to sing--they'd tossed back a few, I think, this motley crew of new friends--they are new to each other, but by morning they are all getting off the train together to eat-, buying each other and me tarag and water, and in Erlian big boxes of fruit because they are so much cheaper here than in Ulaanbaatar--anyway the opera singer didn't sing last night though the rest of us did, and now he is humming along with his headphones, looking down at sheet music.
Us gringos took off down one way, motorbikes and dirt streets reminding me of Rurrenebaque, then down the other past rows of amused locals. The doors to the train station were set to open at 2pm, and by 130 there were mountains of canvas bags and boxes in front of its front doors and a long line of passengers waiting sensibly in the shade of the line of trees across the parking lot--a windowless, customerless duty free shop, all the cigarettes and booze I looked at while the anthill subsided downstairs--bright geometric shapes, wider roads than Ulaanbaatar, actual intersections. As we walked I told Matt my desire to learn Chinese had subsided once I realized the rote memorization necessary to learn an alphabetless language--we ate at a restaurant where they served Matt a huge bowl of meat soup when all he wanted was small potato soup and they tried to charge him for it--none of them knew what kimchi was--later after the dominatrix train employee who orders people off their bunks when she looks at their passports we stopped in Zamin Uud for the second layover. It was the hours it grew dark, so after paying the dollar-to-use bathroom on the central square that looked like one in a central Mexican town, we wandered away from the square. Split level buildings like in my hometown, young people hanging out on the stoops--we found a square brown brick building with a karaoke room and a bar in the basement, a supermarket and a restaurant on the ground floor, and a kid's playground on the second floor. When we left it was dark, 8pm and I saw the slim silhouette of a child watching us from a second-floor window.