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Fiction #519
(published December 30, 2010)
Black and Mild
by Joshua Willey
for Neil

I wasn't looking to go to Lhasa, but I was walking around Dunhuang and I saw a bus station and I asked about buses to Xining, and the guy said he didn't know about that but he was going to Lhasa, at dusk, and he pointed at his ride. "Alright" I said, "I'll go get my stuff." I went back to the hotel and the Kiwi girl I'd gone to Mogao with was sleeping and I woke her up, stuffing all my shit in my bag. "Looks like you're off" she said. "Lhasa" I said. I stopped and ate eight jiaozi with lots of chilies and drank some tea and then I bought cigarettes and baijiu and oranges for the ride. I didn't even know how many hours it would take to get there, and I'd been under the impression that, as a foreigner, I'd need a permit. Nobody had said anything about that though. In Ürümqi I met a Japanese guy who'd been there. He said I should go, said the light was electric. He was headed on to Kashgar. I'd been in Baku, taken a ferry to Kazakhstan, bussed to Xinjiang, slept for a week in Kashgar and then made it to Ürümqi in forty-eight hours on the train, my back slowly molding to the shape of the hard seat. By the time I got to Dunhuang I was beat, but I had a month before my job started in Vietnam. I might as well go to Xizang and meet some of those people with their famously rosy cheeks.

The trip took thirty-six hours. There were only ten people on the bus even though it was a forty seater. I think they were taking women to Tibet to be prostitutes. Of the ten, six were young girls with the look of nervous whores. Then there was me and the driver. Then there was a middle-aged man, bulky, dangerous looking, and an old woman who chain-smoked, the madam, or so I imagined. On the Tangula pass I got sick. It was the middle of the night. The oxygen was thinner than I'd anticipated. In the morning we were on the plateau. The colors were unreal. I drank the baijiu and ate the oranges. We got to Lhasa late that night. I smoked a cigarette outside the station and walked down the road. I passed the Potala Palace. It had looked more real in the photographs I'd seen than it looked in reality, right in front of me. Around the Jokhang Temple I found a hotel and got a bed. A Tibetan man was drinking Chang in a courtyard, amidst some fragrant plants. I asked, in Mandarin, where he got the beverage. He didn't speak Mandarin. I asked in English. He motioned for me to sit and got up. In a moment he came back with a plastic water bottle, well used, which had been filled with Chang. He gave it to me. I asked how much. He just said, "welcome to Tibet." I drank the Chang and smoked again and slept for twelve hours.

The next afternoon I met my roommates. There was a woman in her forties from Stuttgart Germany who had been living in Thailand. There was a young man from Israel in his twenties. Within five minutes we were in the thick of it over the Palestine question. There was a girl from Japan, and a monk from Korea. Then there was a girl from Hunan who was on her way to climb in the Himalayas. There was tension between her and the girl from Japan, from Osaka. I went out walking with the German. We walked for hours, and then stopped to eat. I hadn't eaten in days and was suddenly ravenous. We ate Tibetan food, which meant Yak meat and Tsampa, and Yak butter tea, which was a meal in itself. Afterwards we stopped into a music shop and I bought I a little guitar for eighty yuan. We went up to the roof of our hotel and I played the guitar and she sang and we drank the rest of the Chang. From the roof you could see numerous monasteries, and the roofs of Lhasa, and up into the surrounding mountains. That night a handsome Japanese couple arrived, and we all went to eat Sichuan food. We ate Mapo Dofu and Yuxiang Xiezi and Gongpao Jiding and Tangcu Yiji. The next morning we went to the Jokhang Temple. We had to walk slowly, there were so many genuine pilgrims, it felt strange to be a tourist in such a place, devoted as it was to the exposition of the numinous. We left the temple and sat in the square until late, watching kids cause trouble and monks pray and military police stand around. Watching lefty Europeans romanticize the location. Watching Chinese kids make out in the shadows.

In a few days we went to Namtso, the highest salt lake in the world. There are some islands way out there, and back in the day, before the CCP took over these parts, pilgrims would hike out there at the end of winter, when the water was still frozen. They'd set up a little camp and then, when spring hit, the ice would melt and they'd be stuck out there until the next winter. What would they do out there? A whole season trapped on a small island 4700 meters above sea level. I'd never been so cold in my life. We slept by the lake and drank Yak butter tea in the freezing morning.

The Israeli went to Katmandu, the German went to Trang, the Korean monk and the Japanese girl and I went to Shigatse. He wanted to see Tashilhunpo. The bus broke down at the top of a rise. We sat in the dirt and watched the cloud shadows rolling towards the Himalayas. We got a room in town and drank more Chang, and the Japanese girl went out walking and was attacked by a gang of wild dogs. When she came back her pants were torn and she was laughing so hard she could scarcely breath.

We kept going to this one restaurant and every time we'd show up this girl, Pai, would come out of the back and sit with us. She was intent upon flirting with me. When I first asked her name she said, "my name is. . . I love you." I laughed and asked again. She said, "my name is. . . China." Finally she said her name was Pai and I tried to make a joke about π but didn't have the vocabulary to explain it. She asked for an English lesson and when I asked what she wanted to know she gave me an overview of her existing knowledge. Slowly, she pointed to her eyes and said, "eyes." Then she pointed to her nose and said, "nose." Then she pointed to her lips.

One night Pai came back to my room with me. I had a forty-gigabyte iPod and meant to play her some music from the United States. When she asked if there were prostitutes in my country I was heartbroken. I thought at the least she was interested in getting to know me. She was beautiful, and very deliberate in her motions. When I told her I wasn't going to pay her to sleep with me her interest ebbed with the quickness, and I spent the night listening to my American music all alone, as I usually did.

The monk meant to stay and study Tibetan for a few months. The girl and I went on to Gyantse. We sat in front of the huge Kumbum and she told me her boyfriend had eloped with her sister, and her mother, who had been going gradually insane for a decade recently reached the point at which she no longer recognized her own daughters. Her father lived in the United States with a new family. I said it sounded like a Murakami story, and she said Japan is no more Murakami than it is Shikibu, Kurosawa, Ozu, or Miyasaki. The next day she went to Tingri to look at Mount Everest, I went on to Kailash, the mountain at the top of which Shiva is said to reside. I didn't speak for a few days. I drank water. I went to Ali, capital of the Ngari Prefecture. Shiquanhe the Chinese call it. There is an ancient site in Ngari near the town of Ritu. There is a border dispute with India not far away which makes the military a little wary of travelers. There was a kingdom here named Guge. Now, there is a lot of space. After a few weeks I found myself back in Kashgar. I had to take several flights to get to Ho Chi Min City to meet my new boss. I met up with an old friend there. Faulkner. We bought train tickets to Hanoi.

The train ride was supposed to take about twenty-four hours, but forty-eight had elapsed when we bailed out, walked between the rice paddies to the road, and caught a bus headed north. The bus was packed and we sat on sacks of rice for another ten hours. When we reached Hanoi it was the early morning. We found a hotel and got a room, and Faulkner went out drinking with Tuan, and I stood under a hot shower with MTV turned up loud in the bedroom. Faulkner came back drunk and we watched Eminem and Fergie and fell asleep until twilight, when Tuan woke us up with a knock at the door. I let him in, a sheet wrapped around my mid-section, and he went straight for the mini-bar and cracked a Heineken before sitting down at the phone and making a couple calls. Faulkner flossed his teeth. "Well" Tuan said, "let's go out, I'll show you the city."

"Alright" I said, "lets go."

"But," he looked confused, "don't you need to change?"

"Into what?" Faulkner laughed, the only luggage he had was a paper shopping bag, his only footwear a pair of flip flops someone gave him in Phnom Phen. "This is all we've got."

"What? No suit?" Tuan was outraged, but controlled himself. "It's okay, let's go." We walked to the lake. "Ah" Tuan said, "a beautiful evening." We strolled along in silence. We promenaded ourselves. After a while Tuan bid us sit down a bench and he ran off, saying he'd be right back. "What's he doing?" said Faulkner.

"I dunno," I said. "Do you think Tuan is happy?" Faulkner looked at me with laughter in his eyes, and I knew it was because I always asked him this question, and of course, he never knew the answer. Tuan came back with three cigars. He gave us one a piece and produced a book of matches. There was a slight breeze and it took us four matches to fully light the three cigars. There was Vietnamese writing on the band.

"These taste just like a Black and Mild" Faulkner said.

"Ya. It is good to have a smoke and be walking like this. How do you like my city?"

"It's beautiful. So many galleries" I said.

"Yes, you can be happy to be alive and enjoy a quiet life, but sooner or later, you begin to think about love." Tuan screwed up his face.

"Have you ever been in love Tuan?" Faulkner asked him.

"Oh, I dunno. I dunno. I hope so." We smoked the cigars and after a while Tuan ran off again, to make a phone call he said, and we sat on another bench under a gingko tree.

"I think most people here are married by the time they are Tuan's age" Faulkner said. The next morning we went to the airport. Faulkner took a plane to Luang Pra Bang and I took a plane to Guangzhou. We never saw Tuan again. We'd first met him on the train from Ho Chi Min City when, attracted by Faulkner's full head of red hair, he'd come up and started a conversation with us. Central Vietnam was flooding, and the train didn't seem to be going anywhere. Tuan used this as an excuse to get faded. "Hey you U.S. men" he said, "come have some drinks. For example: Brandy." Tuan was really keen on Brandy. Later, in the bathroom, we smoked opium. There was a girl on board who was en-route to see her boyfriend, a Kiwi, in Hanoi.

"He's a very jealous man," she said. "If you come hand in hand with me you had better be careful."

"Does he speak Vietnamese?" Faulkner asked.

"He only knows a few phrases," she said. "Good morning, please bring beer. I want your bum. Such as this." She ridiculed American girls. "American girls shaped like pear. Vietnamese girl so beautiful." It was a good job, but it didn't last long. I didn't keep in touch with Tuan, let alone with anyone I'd met in Tibet. In the winter I flew back to California and returned to school.

Joshua Willey grew up in Oakland and studied literature in Portland, before moving to China and working a perennial series of day jobs including firefighting and commercial fishing.

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