December 10, 2004  |  Marco Polos
"Holler!" Silence. "Holler!!" The trees do not respond. "Marco!" Only a second later: "Polo!!" Students' voices, laughter. The day's tough descent in these rhododendron and pine forests continues, the ten of us in a loose group behind the guides. My mind was transported however to the world of "Marco Polo," who through the pen of Italo Calvino describes the fantastical places he's encountered, the Invisible Cities, to Kublai Khan. What might the places in our trek look like to him?...


There was the river, of a crystalline aqua-marine, that provided refuge and playground to a group of weary travelers. I remember its name, do you, my students and fellow travelers? One of us, curly-haired, sang by its rushing intensity for a long time like a water spirit. It saw the group sit by the fire, give thanks to the full moon for the beauty it adds to a sentimental holiday, with many other thanks large and small, and heard the idea of "family" interpreted in multiple ways.

There was the village, nestled in a deep valley, offering up its apples thru the raised arms of women. Its doorways are painted in multi colors, ancient water ways channel clear snow mountain water down to each house and shed. Unlike the villages with the insistent old women with the big hats, and the villages with the ridiculously tall ruins of towers watching over them, this one you can only walk to. Can you picture it? Picture then walkers going up the endless switchbacks up the deep valley, two young men at the end, one offering encouragement as well as distraction to the other, both learning about having faith in each step.

There was the sky, here, there, and everywhere, with amazing stars adorning its velvety depths. In one place the night sky heard some young women cough thru the night, and one of them, sleeping outside the tents, break down and cry. Indeed the sky heard at least one of us cry each day, probably. The stars shone more brightly thru the tears.

There was the valley that discovered a bit of gold in the river that runs thru it, and saw a dusty road come in, but not leading to a way out of its vast depth. The people have rough lives here like the pockmarked faces of its mountains--a father got drunk and fell off its sheer drop of hundreds of meters, leaving a wife and two young children behind. The girl quit school to work and raise the boy while the mother left for a town two-days away to make money, and the little bit of donation left by the travelers may help this family a great deal.

There was the mountain pass, barren for its relentless wind, relentless in its test of the travelers. Those who stop to rest only find it harder to continue. It saw these young people pass, one on horseback, all very tired, their will waning. A view of a sacred mountain at the beginning of the pass can only keep one psyched for so long. At this height one can almost see the curvature of the earth; all the tall mountains they saw on the fourth day, the seventh day, and all the other days, were beneath them. Yet neither of these facts may be consolation enough for the fatigue of the body, one only continues because there's no choice. On the descend, finally, they see the three sacred mountains at once and sigh with relief for their protection and blessing. But the mountain knows: you do what you need to do, and you will be able to do it.


Do you remember now, these places? But those are only a few visions of a myriad mountains and valleys we've passed, and what have you seen, my dear young one, my blue-eyed child? Memory is selective, stories even more so. In the evening breezes where you are, to your khans and klans, what kind of fantastical places are you shaping western China out to be?

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