The Blue Moon

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As seen on a late night at work.

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Xinjiang: Flirting on the Nalati Prairie

Meet Azhatae, my horseman and guide for his home, the Nalati Grassland.

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I’m laughing hard here because my horseman was using some incredibly cheesy pick-up lines as he snapped away.

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“Stay here with me; you can ride my horse every day!”
(I couldn’t tell whether that was a true innuendo because he sounded so earnest and he is keenly passionate about his six horses…)

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Originally, we trotted along a well-trodden path. Then, slowly but certainly, we trotted away into grass plains.

He then asked, “Do you trust me?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“I want you to trust me.”
“Why?”
“Hold tight.”
And with a kick, the horse leapt into a quick gallop and I squealed across the plains.

(Then he completely spoilt it with more lame ‘pick-up lines’)
“Was I good?”
“Yea!!!”
“Come over tonight and I’ll show you just how good I am.”
“Umm…I’ll pass…”
“Come! I’ll take you to my home now!”
“Nonononono.”

And he took me safely back to base at the end of two hours. Haha.

Xinjiang: Nalati Prairie

This is the Nalati Grassland near the Sino-Kazakhstan border. This was my favourite place on the whole trip – it’s not difficult to see why.

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Visitors to Nalati on a group tour have a few options to while away the time with… there are a couple of hiking routes, but as I didn’t try them out, I can’t give any recommendations or say how safe/well-labelled they are. Here’s the start of one trail though –

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There’s also a sight-seeing jeep of sorts that takes you up to various scenic-viewing platforms. But the city girl has to opt for horseback-riding, right? What a rare chance – I was so excited!

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The owner, Azhatae, let me take the reins for a bit after he taught me the basic commands…unfortunately I was not firm enough and the horse kept going to munch on juicy grass.

The experience costs RMB160 for two hours. They take you up a tourist trail to a spot where there’s a break in the trees and you see the endless grassland before you, and a trek back. (more about this in an upcoming post!)

These Kazakh men start riding at the age of 5, and the ladies by the age of 9, frequently earlier. I watched some teenagers race each other on a mud track – it was beautiful and thrilling to see it so up-close! More next time!

What is Arcadia, anyway?

From Ben Okri’s In Arcadia

“Arcadia is our secular Eden…A place of dreaming, and songs, an oasis, a refuge from the corrupting cities, a semi-ideal landscape, a qualified paradise. A place with the quietly troubling presence of death, and exile, and stony mountains, and suicide, and sinister shadows, a place that cannot be dwelt in for ever. Then, with the passing of centuries, something happened to Virgil’s Arcadia. It became transformed into a terrain of the mind, a terrestrial paradise, a place of tranquility and rural calm, the domain of the yearning spirit.”

* * * * *

The images that the phrases ‘terrain of the mind’ and ‘a place of tranquility’ suggest to me is that of church, followed closely by the sea, and then, quite oddly, a hotel room. Prayer and meditation sometimes bring peace – i am no stranger to kneeling in a pew and crying to God in desperation and loneliness. The seaside always feels romantic and relaxing; there’s something about the swish of the water that brings balm to the troubled soul. The hotel room, well, I love staycations. I live with a lot of clutter, and a hotel stay is a reprieve from my mess, even if just for a day.

What is your earthly Eden, your secular Arcadia?

Xinjiang: The Bayanbulak Swan Lake (with no swans)

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Grazing animals are lovely to watch.

China has a thing about fencing up natural wonders and charging (exorbitant ticket prices) for them. They do so for lakes, and prairies, and mountains… I understand charging a fee for landscaped parks and historical wonders, collecting donations for museums and places of worship, but charging for natural wonders is simply being opportunistic. Paying for services is acceptable, as is paying a fee for maintenance upkeep, but for a view…? Perhaps I am merely being naive and miserly.

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(The descriptions in English can be read if you enlarge the photographs.)

Here, we were given some time to take a walk (uphill) to see a meandering river.

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I was super cold, and luckily there were coats for rent (100RMB, 50RMB refunded on return of the coat). The domestic Chinese tourists had some good-natured fun teasing me, a foreigner, for wearing the Red Army coat.

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Yes, I do look warm enough to hike the Himalayas, not some highland lake. Ignore my messy hair and check out the curvey river behind!

Given that there were no real swans around…are swans migratory? Or is ‘The Swan Lake’ merely a description of the graceful arches of the river?

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Xinjiang: Just one of the Chinese-Russian borders

So the tour I booked saw us staying one night in Yining city, Yili region, with a little evening tour of the ‘minority ethnic streets’. Yes, evening – this is broad daylight at 8pm or so because all of China follows Beijing time (GMT+8) even when we are at the far west border.

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We sat in decorated horse-drawn carts – the cart could sit 6 comfortably, including the driver. Mostly I was wondering whether we were too heavy for the horses but the cart-driver told me not to underestimate the horse.

Around the neighbourhood we went, and visited several house-shops. Some owners of well-maintained houses open up portions of their homes for view – the garden and dining area, the living room, and in one case, the prayer room.

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Here’s a dining room with Uigher & Russian influences which the owner claims he designed. Apparently, many of these owners have, at some point in their lives, lived in Russia (and also have Russian blood somewhere in their ancestry). The merchandise available in these house shops (usually laid out in a spare room) tend to be scarves or little trinkets out of Aladdin.

And of course there’s the classic little cultural performance that all tours include –

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Mostly amateur but still entertaining. There was this really cute 70+ year old man who did a lively balance-a-flower-pot-on-head dance and received the loudest cheers.

Holidays of the Spirit / The Arcadian Dream

From Ben Okri’s In Arcadia

“‘Even if we don’t believe in it, we need the Arcadian dream,’ Lao said suddenly. ‘If only as a place where the spirit can rest. In life the body can have many holidays, but the spirit has so few. The body’s holidays are simple: sex, sun, beach, sea, sleep. But the spirit’s holidays are rarer: they are ideas, inspiration, Arcadias. The holidays of the spirit are more important than those of the body. The body has lots of holidays while it’s alive, and a long one when dead. The spirit has few holidays when in life. The holiday of the spirit replenishes civilisations, makes spiritual evolution effortless, and makes it possible for us to go up to the higher levels that we despair of reaching. Holidays of the spirit help us assimilate faster and more thoroughly all that we are and have been, they help the inner distillation, and they make us grow faster, greater and more organically. Holidays of the spirit are what bring about our true transformation from chrysalis to butterfly, from weakness to wisdom, from saplinghood to strength. We need Arcadia, for without it we will die of our neuroses.'”

* * * * *

Holidays of the body are sometimes already lacking in our frantic, hectic lives. It was merely a month ago that I was on holiday, and already I am tired and in need of another. But it is true that vacations also make me restless, feeling rather like I am wasting time when I could be catching up on some reading or personal projects.

Perhaps it is the holiday of the spirit that I am looking for during the holidays. The practical question for us, then, is how to experience a holiday of the spirit. Reading and meditation come to mind. Possibly attending workshops or conferences where the exchange of ideas happen, poetry slams and book recitals, or indulging in a fine arts performance, ruminating over something watched at the theatre. Furthering one’s studies.

Noting even as I create this list that these will likely interfere with the ‘holiday of the body’; case-in-point being that the most satisfying or thought-provoking reads are rarely ever easy, popular page-turners.