Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Lost Tourist Prefecture of Shangri-La

Gentlemen, I give you a toast. Here's my hope that we all find our Shangri-La.
- Lord Gainsford, Lost Horizon

You need not worry
You need not care
You can't go anywhere
- The Kinks, "Shangri-La"

The mythical city of Shangri-La, like most mythical cities, remains a mythical city. Shangri-La didn't even exist as a mythical city until the 20th Century, when it appeared in print as the fictional setting of James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon. So you might as well go looking for the Springfield where The Simpsons live, or Tolkien's Middle Earth, or the Lost Starbucks of Nanchong. These places cannot be found because they do not exist. But that hasn't stopped intrepid crackpots from searching for the mythical city of Shangri-La, and it hasn't stopped cash-strapped governments from claiming it as their own.

India insists that Shangri-La belongs to India. Pakistan insists that Shangri-La does not belong to India. Bhutan stakes its own feeble claim to Shangri-La, but nobody knows where Bhutan is, either.

Most occultists worth their salt place Shangri-La somewhere in modern-day Xizang Province - or Tibet, take your pick. Others point toward my home province of Sichuan, but even if Shangri-La had been here, I am sure that it has long since been bulldozed and replaced with a 47-story apartment megaplex, also named Shangri-La.

The Nazis believed that Shangri-La was the Himalayan Ursprung of a blonde, blue-eyed race with untainted National Socialist ideals, but alas! - a 1938 expedition only turned up more brown people. Ach, scheisse!

An American philanthropist named Lutcher Stark gave up the hunt and built his own Shangri-La in Orange, Texas. Lutcher Stark's Shangri-La played host to a shit ton of azaleas - his favorite flower - as well as a couple flocks of free-range swans and ducks. The Shangri-La of Orange, Texas was destroyed by a snowstorm in 1958.

In the late 1960's, The Kinks were purported to have found Shangri-La in lower-upper-middle-class Britain, at least metaphorically. They wrote an album about it. Then they started singing pop songs about transvestites.

More fruitless searching, more Discovery Channel specials, more Kinks reunion tours ... until finally, in the year 2001, the People's Republic of China unearthed the real, actual Shangri-La on the northern frontier of its very own Yunnan Province. Shangri-La's name, incidentally, was Xiang-Ge-Li-La. How had we missed it? It had been right there on the map, staring us in the face all along.

Of course, there are some nasty rumors floating around the internet, to the effect that Xiang-Ge-Li-La skulked around for countless centuries under the guise of Zhongdian, until 2001, when it was hastily rechristened Shangri-La, in order to boost tourism revenue in the otherwise desolate and unproductive nether regions of southwest China. But I wouldn't pay those rumors any mind. Xiang-Ge-Li-La is Shangri-La. It is legit. It's the real deal. I should know. I've been there.

I set off on my quest for Shangri-La in late January of this year. I caught an overnight train to Kunming, where I was reunited with my estranged drinking buddy, Mark: the infamous Bostonian of South Korean fame. We took in the sights of Yunnan's largest city, which is to say we visited the Kunming Dwarf Kingdom and paid homage to the World's Largest Optimus Prime. Yes, above all else, Kunming was a study in contrasts. Then Mark sallied east and I drifted westward, having picked up Erin, a fellow volunteer, along the way.

We caught a bus to Dali, where we crashed the Golden Triangle backpacker scene and lost a small chunk of change gambling on where exactly in the bar an overfed chicken would shit. After we'd worn out our welcome with the local Lostafarian expats, we found that we had just enough money and just enough vacation time left over to go west to Lijiang, or north to Shangri-La.

As a rule, if everyone in China recommends a tourist destination, you'd be wise not to go there. Because everyone in China will be there. You'll spend the better part of a week waiting in line, and when you finally get to the front, a man in drab military garb will say, "Welcome to the end of the World's Longest Queue. Five hundred kuai, please."

Everyone in China had recommended Lijiang to us, so we vowed never to go there. Lijiang was dead to us. We had heard nothing of Shangri-La, but the novelty was irresistible. Where thousands of Discovery Channel camera crews had failed, we would succeed, at least on a technicality. We would make it to Shangri-La. And if there were t-shirts to be gotten, we would get them.

We asked the nice lady at the hostel how to get to Shangri-La.
"Huh? Oh, you mean Zhongdian?"

The next morning, a little yellow bus came hurtling down the road.

"Is that the one?" I asked.
"I don't know! It's got Tibetan writing on the side - run!"

We sprinted, waving our luggage around in the air until the bus whinnied to a stop twenty yards down the road. I got the impression that it wasn't the kind of bus that stopped on a regular basis. Stopping didn't seem to be its strong suit.

Nor was structural integrity its strong suit. Upon further review, this bus didn't have many strong suits at all. The floor of the bus was a hobo suitcoat of welded scrap metal, and even the relatively smooth highways of Dali were threatening at any moment to split the cabin right down the middle. Not even five miles out of town, the trip was doing bad things to my prostate.

In China, you learn to live with vehicles that can't stop or stick together. But then, most of the time you're not weaving ramen noodles up into the foothills of the Himalayas.

I have realized over the years that I was not made for the sea or for the air. I am a land mammal. And for that reason, I tend to gravitate towards the plains. Looking back, all of the places that I've lived have been about as inland as I could get; all of them far removed from any mountains that weren't traversable by stairs. But the little yellow bus to Shangri-La was lugging us up a steady incline and before long the road turned to dust and a yawning abyss began to spread out beneath us.

"My God," I said, recoiling in terror, "it's beautiful."
Erin gripped my wrist.
"It is, isn't it?"
"Yes," I said. "It is."

I couldn't bring myself to look down into the abyss. That giddy top-rung-of-the-jungle-gym sensation blossomed in my gut. The bus driver was driving one-handed, sometimes no-handed, yapping into his cellphone with the one hand and smoking with the other. At the same time, he seemed to be vying for some kind of Road to Shangri-La speed record as he repeatedly scraped the bus up onto the skimpy spaghetti-strap gravel shoulder that lay between us and a ten-second drop into the pit of the stomach of nothingness. No, I thought, forcing myself to peer out the window for a full second: this wouldn't be the kind of fall you get back up from.

Still, the beauty was not lost on me. En route to Shangri-La, we had already reached Shangri-La: not a Shangri-La you can live in or even visit for very long, but the sort of Shangri-La you see out the window of a ramshackle bus with no brakes. The sun was setting over the whitecaps in the distance, planting a golden halo upon the abyss and cloaking in darkness the mountain roads below. No words would suffice, other than some half-assed sentiment to the effect that I had never known such natural beauty was possible - and unfortunately, no photographs will suffice either, as the only pictures of mine that turned out show a golden-green blur, a darkness, a windowframe, and a pair of horrified, bloodshot eyes reflected in the glass.

Just as the sun seemed to have vanished forever, the bus pulled us up out of the darkness and gunned out onto a plain, and it was evening again. I could look out the window again. Here, I felt a bit more at home. It was the Nebraskan panhandle outside. The earth looked dry and punished, the grasses huddled together in knots, as if for warmth. The sky, meanwhile, had swollen to tremendous proportions and belonged to a depth of blue that I had forgotten about after eight months of Sichuan. The architecture, too, was unfamiliar. Not an apartment complex to be seen. Just long, squat houses made of real stone and actual wood. I no longer felt like I was in China. Only the omnipresent red flags mounted from the passing rooftops reassured me. But then, I am nearsighted.

"That's weird," said Erin. "The flags."
"What's so weird about them?"
"They're Soviet flags."

I squinted long and hard and saw that yes, there was a sickle and hammer where the five stars ought to have been. I blinked.

"That is weird," I said.

We were kicked off the bus on a bleary random street corner as the sun went down. We weren't even sure that we had arrived in Shangri-La.

"Are we here?" asked Erin.
"I dunno," I said. "This looks like Billings, Montana to me."
"Maybe Shangri-La was really in Billings, Montana all along."
"Yeah, but this is like the car lot strip of Billings, Montana."

We were back in China again. The buildings were as gray and as soot-stained as they are anywhere else, and the red flags wore the customary five-star constellation in the upper left hand corner. The signs were in Chinese, but there was no English to be found. English had been replaced as a second language by the puzzling curlicues of Tibetan. And in the meantime, it was really fucking cold. Erin and I stomped in place and cursed. We had left Dali and its perpetual spring for the howling Himalayan winds of Shangri-La.

We hailed a cab and told the cabbie to take us to a "cheap hotel," which we hoped would get us to a youth hostel and not to a flophouse. The cabbie was puzzled by our accents and asked where we were from.

"We're Sichuanese," said Erin.

After much negotiation, we wound up at a hostel in the so-called Old Town of Shangri-La. In the lobby, we were descended upon by a couple of ferociously friendly dogs, both of them wearing the underbite that is the mark of good breeding in a Chinese pooch. A door opened and out came a pudgy young Chinese man in a bucket hat. He watched us frolic with the dogs for a moment, then he said something to us in fluently mumbled English.

"Sorry?" I asked.
He mumbled again.
"Er, um," I said.
He mumbled once more, faster this time.
I looked at Erin. She looked at me. We reached for our passports.

It is easy enough to accustom oneself to the diverse accents of the world, but there is really very little one can do with a bona fide mumbler. This mumbler was quite friendly and had plenty of things to mumble about. So we listened. And we established, eventually, that Bucket Hat was the owner of the hostel, that he had owned it for five years, and prior to that, he had served fifteen years in the United States Navy. I glanced at Erin. Erin glanced at me. The thought that struck us then was the same one that would nag us for the rest of our stay: how, just how does one mumble one's way through fifteen years in the military?

Smiling, Bucket Hat invited us to have a seat in front of the television and to crack open a couple Tsingtaos. We stood there smiling back at him like a couple of rubes until he gestured at the couch, the television, and the beers. We sat and we cracked open our beers. Bucket Hat snatched up our passports and, as he turned to the computer, his smile fell off like an untied shoe. He was smiling in one instant, then staring vacantly at the screen in the next as he typed up our vital information.

"Did you see that?" I whispered.
"Yeah," said Erin. "Creepy."
"Your passport's legit, right? I mean, you are who you say you are?"
"I think so. You?"
"I can't remember anymore."

On TV, people were eating noodles with their bare hands.

Bucket Hat returned our passports and yammered at us some more. He sat down across from us but didn't crack open a beer. He asked us some awkward questions. Then, Erin and I did our stretch, yawwwn, boy-what-a-long-trip! routine and managed to sneak upstairs to the room. Erin locked the door, unlocked it, and locked it again.

"I get a weird vibe from that guy," she said.
"Bucket Hat? Yeah, me too."
"I mean, The Shining weird."
"That's funny," I said. "I was about to say that. That's what this place reminds me of, so far."
"The town or the hostel?"
"Both. Hey, you still got that flask in your purse?"
"You mean Mark's Vietnamese snake whiskey?"
"That's the stuff," I gruffed, swigging. "Hair of the dog that bit me."

The next afternoon, we set off on foot to explore the Lost Tourist Prefecture of Shangri-La. The Old Town was little more than a faux-Tibetan nest of knickknack shops. The architecture was of dubious authenticity, and the Tibetans were of equally dubious ethnicity: they were Han Chinese women dressed in Tibetan drag. The shops sold fake animal pelts, replica tusks and replica fangs belonging to various replicated beasts, giant slabs of artificial yak butter, semi-silver machine-minted handcrafts, four-foot tubules of incense that smoked like hydrothermal vents ... Everything smacked of tourist trap claptrap, but Shangri-La would probably be the closest Erin and I would ever get to Tibet, so it was nice, at least, to imagine what Tibet might, perhaps, in no way resemble.

We had breakfast at 2 PM. The Tibetan knickknack vendors of Yunnan Province are generally not Tibetan, but the restaurant owners usually are. And I will say this for the Tibetan restauranteers of Yunnan Province: they do not skimp on breakfast. The English Breakfast at a Tibetan restaurant will set you back twenty kuai, or about three bucks U.S., but it comes with two eggs, a wallop of sausage, a rasher of bacon, a couple slices of toast, and coffee. Real coffee. Or yak butter tea, if you're into that sort of thing. This particular breakfast nook had lots of cats, and it took me two hours to finish my plate because I was too busy rekindling my lifelong feline love affair. The music on the stereo was 21st Century Leonard Cohen, by far the most tasteful music I'd heard in China since my arrival. Though I've always appreciated Leonard Cohen, I'd never quite gotten into his synthy stuff. But the breakfast was so good and the cats were so lovely that I vowed right there and then to steal some albums from the internet and give the old man a chance.

Thoroughly bloated and unusually gassy, we set out again, and this time we walked towards the east, away from the Old Town. We came to a truly devastated building, a building that hadn't just been neglected, but looked to have been actively looted and pillaged. The windows, oddly enough, were still intact, but the walls were not. I pressed my face to the glass and saw heaps of battered cement and crushed bricks strewn about what was once the floor of the establishment. In the middle of it all, there was a western toilet, smashed in half and laid to rest against a stack of cinder blocks.

"A western toilet. That's odd. What the hell was this place, you think?" I asked Erin.
She blew some dust off the glass.
"A youth hostel," she said.
Sure enough, there was the official Lonely Planet logo, stuck to the inside of the window. We walked a bit further and saw the name of the hostel pasted against the next window: SHANGRI-LA TRAVELER CLUB.

The next building over was similarly destroyed, and it, too, was once a youth hostel. Rather eerily, there were still postings taped to the outside wall. "LOOKING FOR A TOUR GUIDE TO TIBET. CALL ME ... " "FOR SALE: USED BICYCLE, GOOD CONDITION ... "

"I hope this didn't start happening today," I said.
"Yeah. I shouldn't have made that crack about The Shining."
"Bucket Hat knows," I said. "He always knows."

A couple blocks later, we arrived at the main square, or something like it. It was a sunny day in Shangri-La, so the square wasn't terribly unpleasant to behold from a distance. But like a good Monet, it was rather hideous up close. The square was completely abandoned, and mostly destroyed. There were knock-off Disney-themed boats in the lake, most of them toppled, overturned, drowning. The pillars along the waterfront had long since come undone and had apparently been cast into the lake with some enthusiasm. The Tourist Information Center had been gutted, the windows smashed. One of the windows had shattered in such a way that what remained of the glass was the outline of the bunny rabbit from Donnie Darko. All of the buildings were clogged with garbage and smashed bricks. They reeked strongly of human feces. And yet they were all new, mint condition. The square couldn't have been five years old.

"Why do I get the feeling," said Erin, "that tourism never quite took off in Shangri-La?"
"Well, we're here, aren't we?"
"Yeah. But we're the only ones here."

This was true. In two lazy afternoon hours, we had navigated the whole of Shangri-La, and the only people we'd encountered on the streets were the faux-Tibetan knickknack vendors and a Canadian couple. And we kept running into the Canadian couple. It didn't seem like the kind of town where anybody actually lived, or the kind of town that people actually came to visit. Shangri-La was a ghost town.

We wandered amongst the rubble until the sun had set, until the cold had turned my beard to leather. We returned to the hostel. Bucket Hat watched us enter and invited us to sit down in the lobby. We stretched and yawned and oh, boy, what an exhausting day on the town we'd had ... We went back up to the room and watched the Winter Olympics.

The next afternoon, after breakfast, we left Shangri-La altogether and drifted up into the mountains. After that first day, I felt like we were a couple of chumps to be hanging around Tibetan Silver Dollar City when all that ... space was out there. The mountains were gorgeous. But as a Nebraskan, I am not well-acquainted with topography. Erin is from Ohio, so she wasn't much better. But let it be known: mountains can be deceptively far away, especially the big ones. We walked our way out of town and across several miles of nothingness. Still, the mountains eluded us. And still, we walked. We walked and walked until we came to a sandy path leading up into the cleavage between a couple of whitecaps.

"You're sure you want to do this?" Erin asked.
"Sure," I said. "I mean, not sure. But sure."
"There's a fence," said Erin, "and a sign. And a dog. Maybe this is private property."
"Naw," I said. "Who would pay for this shit? And anyway, we've come this far - "
"That dog doesn't look friendly."
"He's sleeping. But how about this," I said, "I grab a brick and you grab a brick, and if the dog attacks, we brick the dog."
I knew Erin would go for it. She's Irish, and so am I, at least halfway so. The Irish are not above bricking dogs to death. So we picked up two bricks each.

We walked up the path and as we passed through the gate, the dog raised its head and stared at us. We kept walking. The dog remained poised there, half-awake.

"I don't know about this," said Erin.
"Neither do I," I said, "but we've come this far - "

We took a step. The dog pounced to its feet and visibly bristled. It barked. It charged. We ran. I remember nothing. I remember being scared shitless. I remember flinging a brick over my shoulder and instinctively shielding my balls with my hand. Then we were back out on the street again, hearts racing, adrenaline pumping, legs turned to rubber like we'd just dropped sixty floors in an elevator. In the distance, I saw that the dog had laid back down and was trying to get some sleep.

"Do we try again?" I asked.
"No," said Erin.
"Alright. Have it your way. But would you have killed him?"
"Hell yeah," said Erin. "I like dogs, but ... you?"
"No doubt."

We walked the streets for a bit. There were cows grazing the median of the highway. We passed several mountains but did not approach them. Instead, we named them after our nearest and dearest: Mt. Vijay, Gary Glass, Jr. Memorial Bluff, Rosstin Murphy Shan. We came across a pack of domesticated dogs, all of them collared and well-groomed. They were on something of a rampage, barking up and down the alleys, chasing down windblown scraps of garbage. The leader of the pack was fairly imposing, but the rest of them were anklebiters, dachshunds, mere pups. I gave chase.

"What the hell are you doing?" Erin laughed, grabbing my arm and chasing after me. "Didn't we just get attacked by a dog?"
"We can join the pack! This is the only scene in town," I said, breathlessly. "They probably won't even notice. Look at their raggedy-ass crew. We're better than them."

So follow we did. A couple curious dogheads turned in our direction. But after a while, after the pack had accepted us, they didn't really mind. They did their thing. They went on sniffing expeditions, then shot off on barking expeditions. We sniffed and barked right along with them for several blocks. Thankfully, Shangri-La was desolate enough that no humans were around to judge us. The dogs certainly didn't. They just thought we were a couple of unusually tall and lanky-looking dogs. We hung with them until they got into a tussle with the guard dog out in front of the Communist Party headquarters. At that point, the dogs went one way, and the humans went another. Troublemakers all, none of us wanted that kind of trouble.

Erin and I followed the highway out of Shangri-La until we came to a pleasantly apocalyptic wastescape. We'd just finished reading The Road, so the view was practically nostalgic. We struck poses.

"Give me Lawrence of Arabia," I said.
"Give me George Clooney of Syriana," she said.
"Give me hitchhiker."
"Give me constipated man crushing a chunk of cement with his bare hands."

It was frustrating, in a way. All that farmland gridwork stretched out in front of us, the livestock scattered like dots, the jagged whitecaps in the distance, the stormclouds gathering a furious brow upon the horizon. And yet all of it was out of reach. It was within walking distance, but we knew there would be fences, and walls, and guard dogs in our way. And we were already exhausted from an entire day of wandering, and running with the domesticated dogs of Shangri-La, and running from the guard dogs of Shangri-La. If we turned back now, we had Tibetan Silver Dollar City and The Shining youth hostel to look forward to. We didn't want to turn back. So all there was to do was stand there at the side of the highway and admire. Here is beauty. Here is Shangri-La. Shangri-La is not a city. Shangri-La is not Xiang-Ge-Li-La. No, Shangri-La is a place off in the distance that you can never get to. You approach it and it recedes. It is the horizon. But once you know where it is, you can at least stand back and say, what a pretty place it would be to visit.

We returned that night and sat down in the hostel lobby at Bucket Hat's behest. He grilled us some eggs, then he grilled us about what we did during the afternoon and evening. Nothing much, said Erin, and I emphatically agreed. He pressed us further and I told him that we'd tried to walk up into the mountains, and that after we'd been attacked by a dog, we decided to walk along the highway and stare at the mountains for a while. And I swore I could've seen him pressing a button under the desk. Erin yawned. I stretched. We went back upstairs. We watched re-runs of the Winter Olympics and, for the first time in either of our lives, we found ourselves rooting for the United States like they were the Good Guys.

We decided to leave the next morning, but Bucket Hat informed us that there weren't any trains or buses out of Shangri-La for another four days, at least. Panic flared. Erin and I retreated to our room. I locked the door, unlocked it, and relocked it.

"This won't work," I said. "After four days here - "
"After four days here, I will eat you."
"Or I will eat you first," I said. "We'll go crazy."
"We'll go batshit. But maybe we can catch a taxi?"
"Or maybe we can walk?"
"Or maybe we're fucked," said Erin.
"Probably we're fucked," I said, "but in the meantime, the Winter Olympics are on CCTV."

So we watched the Winter Olympics for four days straight in Shangri-La. It's not something I'm proud of, and I'm sure Erin isn't, either. But the both of us learned a great deal about the sheer skill involved in piloting a bobsled, about the geopolitics of figure skating, and more about Tonya Harding than we could ever hope to know. By the end of it, we could actually understand curling. In the afternoons, we would sneak out of the hostel and run off to check out those lonesome mountains in the distance. Once, we saw such a squall brewing in the mountaintop heavens that we had to run along the highway back into town, and that night it actually snowed, though nothing stuck.

The next day, we found a square with some legitimate-looking Tibetan temples, but China had long since conditioned us both to disbelieve in the antiquity of anything. However much we wanted to believe, the Tibetan prayer flags were like used car flags to us. So we wandered around the square for a bit, took some pictures, and returned to our warm hostel room and watched the US-Canada hockey game. For lack of other things to do, I bellowed up a storm.

It had become clear to us, in the meanwhile, that we had been the only guests at Bucket Hat's hostel over the course of that long, sensory deprived week. How did Bucket Hat make money? How did Bucket Hat keep the rooms so clean? How did he keep the Tibetan frills so finely polished, and how could he afford to donate half his proceeds to a Tibetan orphanage across town, as he so proudly mumbled? These questions and others would never be explained to us by our bucket hatted host, and in any case, whatever the answers were, mumble mumble mumble, we would not have been able to understand them.

A yellow bus rolled into town on a Tuesday, one full week after we had arrived, four full days after we had planned on leaving. So we bought the tickets from Bucket Hat and hustled down to the station two hours before the bus arrived. I ran across the street to a noodle shop at 7 AM to buy breakfast for Erin and me. For me and Erin. Whichever is grammatically correct.

A hobo Briton had struck up conversation with Erin in the meanwhile. He had been in Shangri-La the whole time, but we hadn't seen him, no doubt because he was off doing far more adventurous things than gazing at mountains, fending off feral dogs and watching the Winter Olympics. He regaled us with tales of his backpacking misadventures through Tibet. Shangri-La was his last stop before returning home to the Commonwealth. Gap year, y'know. He regaled us with tales of shirpas and gurus, tales of freezing to death in sleeping bags, tales of burning to death on remorseless Tibetan plains. And I tried to maintain interest. I really did. But more and more, backpacker stories bore me, as his stories were visibly boring Erin. His stories didn't bore me out of jealousy. Believe me, I wouldn't have the balls to venture up into the Himalayas, and I do not envy the chapped testicles of those who do. But in the words of my undergraduate creative writing adviser, the lovely Mary Helen Stefaniak (in reference to something I'd written that reminded her of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy), "It's all been done." (Here, she tilted her head back and cackled a bit. Then she regained composure and churched her hands in her lap.) "Yes, Keith Petit. It's all been done."

I'm not one to disagree with Mary Helen Stefaniak. It has all been done. Tibet, El Dorado, Atlantis, Shangri-La - by now, you'd be hard-pressed to find a square inch of earth that has gone untraipsed by Keds brand footwear. It's all been done. Still, however many times it's been done, as an aspiring traveler, you might yet hold onto some feeble Eat, Pray, Love-esque faith that a backpacking trip through the Himalayas might afford you some sort of spiritual enlightenment. But I've met enough backpackers by now to know that that no, that's not how it works. You can only backpack for so long. Backpackers must one day unpack their backpacks and return to ground level. After that, they get jobs, they get married, they start families, and eventually, they have to grapple with the same problems we're all busy grappling with. Escape is not an escape, because one day, the escape will end, and then you are left with yourself. Or you can escape forever, if you so desire. That option, after all, remains open to all of us. But the universe is plenty lonely as it is, and very few people have the constitution necessary to live apart from society any longer than a couple of years. Very, very few people have what it takes to be a hermit.

Living abroad is a temporary escape. It takes courage, and I admire that courage. It is what I am doing right now, and what I have been doing for several years. But I don't take pride in it, because it is purely voluntary on my part. I could be living very comfortably in the United States right now. I live slightly less comfortably in China at the moment. So what? Were I stranded up in the Himalayas, I'd be living even less comfortably. So what? The difference is: as a Westerner, I have chosen to come here and I do not have to stay here. I can always go back. But the people who live in China are stuck in China. The people who live in Tibet are stuck in Tibet. Their lives are not glamorous, however much we'd like them to think so. What we consider an escape, they consider life. The frontiers we explore remain the frontiers, even after we're done with them, and the people who live on those frontiers have to remain living on those frontiers. There's very little adventure left in travel, the more I think about it. It's all been done.

No, to my mind, the only real adventure left is the mind. The mind is where it's at. That doesn't mean you can't supplement your adventure with a trip through the Himalayas, or a lowly sojourn to Shangri-La. But what matters to me is who you are, not where you've been. When you come down from the mountains, what life can you bring to that story? Why should I listen? Why should I care about it? You've been where I have never been. So make that story dance, child.

Every year, more and more long-haired scrubs go venturing up into the Himalayas, but I shall not. I am currently a scrub and I may yet grow my hair out. But those mountains are much too high for me. No, my story will take place at ground level. I was not made for the sea or for the air. I am a land mammal.

It is not out of envy or bitterness that I rail against the backpackers, if I am railing against them at all. I just don't see a story there anymore. Not unless I know the mind behind it. Not unless I find that mind worthwhile. When it comes to stories, the mind is the only thing that counts. There are men who have never left their hometowns, who have lived their whole lives in cubicles, and yet they have more to say than I ever will. And you should pay attention to them rather than me, because they have traveled and I have not.

The British hobo bid us farewell and departed. Erin lost her stainless steel chopsticks somewhere in the bus station and we spent fifteen minutes looking for them, to no avail. Then it was time to get on the little yellow bus. The whole ride back, all the old ladies were puking out the windows.

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