two poems from 2004

last week, a trip back to new mexico unearthed many memories, feelings, a person from a lifetime ago, and a journal from my first trip to china. these are two poems written during that summer, which the universe seems to have circled back on now, 14 years later.

‘poem from a nanjing evening’ – 30 july, 2004

feels like lightning
he says
running through my veins
every time i look at you.
but you’re not seen now
away from eyes
out of brain.
your magnificent
the brownness of your skin
in shallow muddy waters,
hardly compare
to the frail moon
frosting monsoon mountains
and walkway lamps
in a rippling reflection here.

i know how i’m not yet beyond you.
not beyond
the melody of your finger whispering
songs along my spine.
but this night is simmering with
the brew of farewell.


‘untitled’ – 19 july, 2004

here is rest
and china makes
him matter less
or not at all.
makes his scent
evaporate into
the smallness of my
memory and
bigness of the heat
and water
on the far side of the world.
all the soreness
of shoulders laden
down with anxiety
or hope for the hopeless
is carried away across the
on a breeze that smells
like ginger
and humid haze.

the bund, shanghai, a july night, 2004.


poem from maijishan

maiji shan

lean back, crane, gape.
15 mi, up up up
unaffected visages, strings of browned beads
swirling orange fabric
hewn in rock
before the sun rose on this time.
did those monks know, care, we’d come –
build catwalks and stairwells and handrails
windhowl through wire mesh –
for glimpses into dark caves, where
after millennia,
some painted faces waited.
you can see them hanging
robes dangling, swaying feet inside
bamboo sandals
carving an eyeball, a simper, a hand aloft
up this cliffside
for nirvana.

what sort of faith is this.

poem of oasis


flying apsaras of mogao
circling around sakyamuni
with music, dune-curved dances
scarves floating round their waists
never touching fairy skin-to-silk,
a lotus flower, legs crossed, sublime.
i get lost in the language
like sand, smooth,
as if water were
cast in time.
the sun crests hot
and dry through dust and smoke from
nearby factories
then fades into a watercolour of peach, brown
then green-blue
now an azure empyrean heaven
sand mountains outlines of where we can’t go
the taklamakan wilds, the qilian shan feeding
dry riverbeds here
with bursts of mudgush come spring.
red lanterns, orange LEDs on a hotel to the west
reminders of this life
and those that came before.

poem of the river

the summer river
wends down through the arid mountains
of gannan prefecture
xia he, it is called.

when april snows fall
over these crags
the monks are pure scarlet
drops on that white blanket.

mud walls, scooped roofs of amber
tile, prayer flags swaying
like my devotion to this, or anything at all.

at 9800 feet the wispy oxygen
is heady,


on eating in beijing

eating abroad is hard, no matter where you are or who you are. it’s hardest when you’re travelling solo. no manner of language skills can ease the agony of looking into the windows of a restaurant you know you should go into and thinking, dear god help me. what will i order and will they serve it? what if everyone looks at me when i come in by myself? what if they don’t have “it”, whatever it is that i am agonisingly not sure i’m going to order? what if, worst case scenario, i am for some reason turned away and everyone laughs at me as i leave? or i sit down and try to order whatever it is that i am agonisingly not sure i’m going to order and the server says “what? what is that? we don’t have that? you are a fucking joke!”

i love eating. eating is one of my favourite things about travel. food glorious food in all its forms is something i take great pleasure in, and i think that food is probably the best way to understand another culture. and yet i still have these feelings almost daily when i am on the road somewhere. a friend of mine at work often regales us with his tales of being terrible at choosing a restaurant or food when travelling – and ending up walking for miles before finally stuffing some sort of awful junk/fast food into his mouth and skulking away in shame. i consider myself to be a ‘foodie’ although i hate that word and all of its connotations, but this is still my experience, too.

asia has the reputation of being a great place to eat, and as a continent it really is. but you have to know your way around. and even then things don’t always go well. it depends largely on the place you’re in and the culture of that place.

which brings me to my point. beijing is a tough place to eat. don’t get me wrong, there are bags of good food here. you can have almost anything you want, from perfectly crispy peking duck (local specialty) to simmering thai food, hand-pulled noodles from western china, pizza or, these days, a kimchi burger. that doesn’t mean it’s an easy place to fill your stomach.

first of all, beijing is giant. it is like an american city times a thousand: perfectly straight, giant five-lane highways, i mean roads, criss-cross the city in arrow-straight lines. the roads are giant, as are the distances between subway stations, and there are a lot of subway stations in beijing now. so getting anywhere is your first issue, particularly if you don’t live locally and have a scooter like most people here. you get off at a subway station and might still be walking for 20 minutes to reach your destination.

which brings me to my next point: you need to have a destination. there might’ve been a time, hundreds of years ago, when beijing was a town of neighbourhoods, but now it’s just giant block after giant block of giant glass buildings, hidden underground malls and under-junction stairway tunnels. it sounds awful, and it can be if you don’t have a plan.

there is no way to have a bit of a wander in beijing. to let the city take you where it wants you to go. i am a big fan of this – flaneuring, to give it its french name – and it works so well in the old cities of europe and even north america. please, friends, do not try this in beijing. you will end up walking 3-5 miles with the unintended consequence of low-blood-sugar rage, disorientation and carbon monoxide lightheadedness.

the best way to eat in beijing is to make a plan. do your research. define your target (a recommended restaurant, even a hole-in-the-wall) and make a break for it. do not pass go, do not collect two hundred yuan. and do not try to ‘wing it’.

notes from a (roughly) repatriated laowai

it’s been five years, nearly to the month, since i bid china goodbye. it was a rough parting – one i don’t often talk about. after spending the greater part of my adult life learning chinese, travelling in china, teaching in china, making chinese friends, returning to china and generally showing an interest, this place ate me up, spat me out and then let the door hit my ass on the way out. a near miss with deportation that was, more or less, not my fault, meant i feared i might never come back.

evening in xining

but hey, every hardened traveller needs a war story like that right? details, yes there are details but if you want them you’ll need to buy me an in-person beer to get them.

suffice it to say, i was wracked with nerves and excitement on the flight from heathrow to beijing. i wondered how my chinese had held up over so many years, which have flown by with little chance for practice. i wondered if i still had all that inner fortitude that it takes to travel around china. the honking, the smells, the shouting people and sweating in unmentionable places. i wondered, basically, if i could hack it. after all, i am now an old, happy, married lady and not the wet-behind-the-ears 20something with a small but well-formed taste for danger i once was.

some observations, after five years.

1. china has not actually changed that much.

people love to bang on about how china is a land of contrasts. paradoxes on every corner. mobile phones and water buffalo! hey, i have used that line (more than once). it’s all true, and of course china is in massive flux. that said, things are still pretty much business as usual here. chinese people are still chinese, they have always been chinese, and whether political/economic ideologies come and go (which they’ve done many times in the vast 5000 years of chinese history), the people carry on. there are fundamental things that make an easy in: chinese people are pragmatic, inventive, love a good joke and sharing a laugh and a meal with friends. they love to know how china compares to just about anywhere else and they love a bottoms up.

the high streets of china are still the same – grey brick interrupted by vertical lined brick to help the blind people that never seem to surface. walking down the street still presents the same olfactory onslaught of trash, coal fire, jasmine tea and exhaust. yes, there is now craft beer in beijing (oh thank the lord) but like putting on a familiar old coat that’s just a little too small after years of wear, china remains at once a comfortable and an uncomfortable place to be.

chinglish grey pottery cock

2. the adage (cliche?) comparing language to riding a bike is true.

i have worried that i was ‘losing my chinese’. let’s be honest, there really aren’t that many places you can use mandarin in modern day life in the west. sure, you can pitch up to the odd sichuanese restaurant in london, say xiexie and hope they reciprocate, but that almost never goes anywhere. when i went to taiwan in february, i madly studied up on the plane, fearful for my chinese, but the reality was that in a group tour there i had very little chance to bother with the local language (so sad).

but boom, land in beijing and it’s like your mind changes to another mode. you go into china gear and that’s it, everything floods back with the heavy context that blue communist trucks and innumerable hanzi signs and shoe shops blaring loud music and sweaty taxis bring. good news folks, learning a language doesn’t mean you have to do it everyday; that info will happily sit at the back of your brain until you next need it.

this brings me to point three.

3. china with a smartphone is UH.MAZE.ING.

five years ago, there were no smartphones in china. in fact, my little non-flip, colour screen samsung phone was pretty state-of-the-art back then (i am still using it right now for local calls). then again, google and twitter weren’t blocked back then, so it’s a give and take. still, having my iphone handy for free wifi moments and offline mapping has been, quite frankly, unbelievable. the navigation can’t even compare with five years ago. so, i suppose, that’s one thing that has changed immensely for the better. tip: google maps is blocked without a VPN, but if you load it up with your VPN it will still track your GPS offline. meanwhile, apple maps is not blocked (handy).

4. chinese beds are still hard as FUCK.

i have bruises. need i say more?

and i will leave you with this fifth and final point.

chinglish baick chicken

5. chinglish still reigns

despite all the press about china gearing up for the ’08 olympics by training its taxi drivers to speak english, a) most taxi drivers i encountered in beijing still didn’t speak english and b) chinglish is still everywhere. long may it live.