Lost in translation

An extract from Irwin Allan Sealy's - The Small Wild Goose Pagoda An Almanack
Lost in translation
Lost in translation

3 June- Pingyao

I ride the electric rickshaw through early morning streets, past the first trickle of workers, and shuttered shopfronts of what could be the set of a Western. The hotel is a courtyard hotel and I strike a bargain with the suave owner. Pingyao is tourist country, even for Chinese, a perfectly preserved brick city from Ming times, with hutong courtyards hidden from the street by elaborately decorated brick screens. There is little overt restoration yet a miraculous state of preservation that must have to do with low rainfall. I walk past yards and doorways, peeping as far in as I dare, catching tranquil moments of domesticity. By mid-morning I&rsquom sketching the intricate brick patterns over gateways and doorways on the alley just inside the city wall.

Four teenage girls stop their bicycles to see how the sketch is going. In a public square they might have hesitated here there&rsquos nobody. One of them, Eileen, speaks good English and wants to know what I think of China. It&rsquos a marvel, I assure her with a sweep of the hand, a perfect marvel. Their smiles grow wider. I expect them to remount and go on their way. But they close in, simply and unaffectedly interested in the stranger. No, but really, what have I seen Almost nothing, I say, except for Beijing and Shanghai. &lsquoShang...hai&rsquo they chorus. But Shanghai is briskly set aside. Now I see how young they are, school-leavers from Wuhan on a tour the rented bicycles, these funny brick lanes, the foreigner sketching, everything is oxygen, burning with an invisible flame and they are fire-eaters. Now I&rsquom the one who&rsquos afraid they&rsquoll leave. I invent questions to detain them but I needn&rsquot have feared they&rsquore in no hurry. Their enthusiasm is an undentable spacecraft, shining. I get them to write out their names. They leaf through my book. They ask me which of them is the prettiest. Both sides have found a private lane where they can be as nosy as they please. Only one of them, Shi Jiao, the shyest, appears to go by her Chinese name the rest sign Western. I find this time and again among young people of their age, the ones most apt to seek me out when I&rsquom sketching.

When they were gone, waving madly, a woman of seventy came by, and with the warmth of the girls still upon me I nodded brightly at her. She looked at me without the trace of a smile and turned her head away. But there was a still older man, of almost reproachable (and surely at one time dangerous) gentility who sneaked a look at my drawing and smiling approval bowed courteously as he edged away.

5 June- Hohhot

The train to Inner Mongolia runs through bare high plains with abandoned villages strewn on either side of the track. Little unwalled cemeteries crop up like market gardens growing stones. A weeping willow leans over a headstone higher than the rest the two converse without noticing our passing train.

Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, is a Han city now, with streets so wide you shade your eyes when you peer at the far bank. It is crowded and empty at the same time, so you are forever running into snarls of traffic or pedestrians, then suddenly wondering where everybody went. I check into a hotel and then walk and walk looking for a park I can sit in. Highrises and unfinished malls line my randomly chosen road. Streetside escalators constantly block the way, and gantries with temporary boardwalks. Patient shoppers glide along travelators carrying bags whose brand names add to the silent cacophony, because it is quiet, unbelievably quiet for a big city. Finally I find a gap in the construction work and shear off down a dusty lane into the municipal gardens. All the benches that ring the blue concrete pond are taken pleasure boats collide and quack. I find a little grassy plot beside the city conservatory and lie for hours under a laburnum, feeling the earth surge under my shoulder blades. In winter, I think every time I open my eyes and look up through the faded yellow lanterns, I would be under a metre of snow. All around me the lilac bushes have lost their blooms, the green seed still forming or I&rsquod collect some to take home. Little girls in lavender leotards appear from time to time on a staircase, and a piano clunks Mendelssohn. A whiff of dogshit drives me to the next tree along for another hour. I want to be doing nothing, especially if all there is to Hohhot is what I&rsquove seen on the way here. I could spend the whole day here in the grass. A man and his young son come by picking dandelion leaves and dropping them in a bag salad, not weed.

I spread a handkerchief over my eyes and see the girl in uniform at the Pingyao station last night how torn between her need to stand at attention and her wish to talk Duty won of course her railway uniform was starched to a snap, and I had never seen such precise infantry evolutions performed in civilian life before, every platform with its presiding officer. She took my ticket and led me to where my carriage would stop.


A white-gloved finger pointing to one square inch of China. I did not doubt her for a moment. I came from a land where the margin of error was wider than the whole body of certitude. Having escorted me she felt obliged to wait till the train arrived. We stood there under the white lights on the empty platform, the emptiness a shock for the traveller from India, where a platform is a kind of gypsy camp. The train appeared to be late, in itself an incredible thing, and we filled in the interval with our need to talk, the will to connect trashing every obstacle of language. The usual question, the usual answer, with all the resonances of contingency added in her unarmed beauty made piquant by that soldierish uniform, my susceptibility encased in my foreignness, the very circumstance of strangers, a man and a woman, thrown together in the half dark. I may have said I loved China. She may have said that was a wonderful thing. &lsquoWelcome to Pingyao&rsquo she said, her eyes shining, and immediately saw her mistake. I was leaving. More apologies, more answering self-deprecation defences down to nothing. When the train left she was at her post at the foot of the stair, a statue.

I dusted off the little yellow petals, pea family, strewn across my shirtfront, shaking a couple into my book where I find them pressed now, a year later, and took another path out of the park. A student stationed under a tulip tree sold me a hammock, my only Mongolian souvenir. Would Genghis Khan have conquered the world with layabouts like me By the Great Mosque were bakeries selling plaited bread I pointed gravely at the stickiest loaf gravely the man wrapped it, never once taking his sleepy eyes off me. I counted out the notes helped by all the housewives of the adjoining tenement halls. Then began an epic trudge, past salons where youths with orange hair sprawled before vast mirrors, and fishmongers whose eels lolled black and slick in buckets. A band of Mongol dwarves in wheelchairs paraded up and down, hogging the sidewalk, grinding out tabernacle hymns from a barrel-organ sized speaker in a pram. I passed and repassed them, lost. Finally a newspaper vendor set me right with a little map he drew me, painstakingly outlining all four sides of every streetcorner with a gel pen I bought off him. As darkness fell the streets came alive with prospecting girls and charcoal fires bristling with sticks of broiled mutton. I ate the sticky bread washed down with a peach bigger than my fist, the kind you can only eat naked and dripping in a bathtub.

Irwin Allan Sealy is the author of The Trotter-Nama, The Everest Hotel, The Brainfever Bird and other novels, and a travelogue, From Yukon to Yucatan. He lives in Dehradun, where he is apprenticed to a bricklayerIrwin Allan Sealy is the author of The Trotter-Nama, The Everest Hotel, The Brainfever Bird and other novels, and a travelogue, From Yukon to Yucatan. He lives in Dehradun, where he is apprenticed to a bricklayer.

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