from 'Journey to the End of the Empire: On the Road in Eastern Tibet,' with author's note
Camphor Press, 2022
In Dali, in the southwest corner of the empire, I watched a man butcher a pig carcass on the street. Thick dead skin opened pink and gray to bones and flesh, a cubism of meat splayed out on an old army tarp. The man paused to light a cigarette, and blood stained the paper where he held it between his lips. It was September — autumn light slanted in thin and golden, like mineral oil infused with streaming photons. Water flowed down a square gutter cut in the marble flagstones on its way to Lake Erhai on the valley floor. Green mountains rose in all directions, just-spawned dinosaurs glistening in the sun. To the north, rivers and ravines spilled down like apron strings from the Tibetan Plateau. The man slit the pig open from the groin to the dead gray snout. He pulled out the viscera muck and threw it in the channel of water, washed the shit from the intestines, and rolled them up to pack away. He cut off the legs and carved out slabs of meat, stuffed them into baskets panniered to a dented motorcycle, then hacked off the head and strapped it to the back fender. The man washed off his tarp and lashed it to a basket, lit a new cigarette, and drove away in a cloud of blue exhaust.
“Sucks to be a pig,” someone next to me said in Mandarin. I turned and saw Liu, a skinny youth with a wispy goatee and an intelligent, skeptical look in his eyes whom I’d met a couple of days before. He was one of the local bohemians who had drifted to Dali from a more hectic urban reality elsewhere in the empire, and now spent his days drifting up and down the stone streets between cafés and cheap noodle shops and groups of friends.
“Interesting place to do your butchering,” I said.
“Hey, man,” Liu said, “it’s just blood and violence — nothing new. It’s better to have it out here where we can see it, instead of hidden away in some slaughterhouse or politburo meeting.”
I had no argument for that. As I traveled higher and further north along the edge of Tibet it became harder to separate a plate of meat from the animal it came from. Kiss the bloody lips of the abyss, say a prayer of thanks it’s not your turn for the knife, and continue on. Liu took a puff of the spliff that slanted perpetually from the corner of his mouth and handed it to me.
“Don’t the cops give you any grief over smoking?” I asked.
“Nah, they don’t care, how could they? Ganja grows wild all around here. They smoke it themselves if they know what’s good for them.”
“What about Mao?”
“Chairman fucking Mao? Gimme a break, man. He wouldn’t have known a good weed crop if it bit him on his red communist pecker.”
I sucked in the burning glow. The smoke scratched my lungs and emerged in gray-white clouds that drifted up into the blue. The machines were humming and groaning somewhere, but for now they were far from me.
Liu took his spliff back and grinned as the motorcycle exhaust dispersed into the cool clear air.
“Don’t worry, man, the blood will wash away,” he said.
The annals of the former pig were already fading from where they were written across the flagstones. We left them behind and walked down Renmin Lu, People’s Street, the central artery of town. An old tractor came puttering down the road, farting out black exhaust, so primitive it didn’t even have a hood over the engine — just a noisy bristle of gears and cogs and belts set on the chassis. We strolled along behind it. The blue-veined marble of the streets and buildings was cracked and crooked, translucent in sunlight yawning from the sky. Grasses and flowers grew in the seams of tile roofs. Women from the Yi tribe, wearing sequined green jumpsuits, sat on curbs, offering baskets of strawberries and walnuts from their mountain villages, speaking their own language, squinting at passersby like we were usurpers. A man missing a front tooth and wearing an indigo Mao jacket sold bananas from a cart as he smoked a pipe, his hair dyed black with shoe polish. I had bought a bunch from him the day before. He held out a couple singles to me and said, “Free!” Liu and I ate them as we passed dreadlocked musicians strutting up and down the street in leather jackets and aviator shades. Renmin Lu had a mythic quality of timelessness, like La Rambla in Barcelona, which Lorca said he wished would continue on forever. Life was luminous and ramshackle here in this town left to its own devices at the edge of the empire, not yet improved, slicked up, and modernized to death.
We passed a police precinct, a whitewashed concrete pillbox with a uniformed officer sitting in front and sipping tea from a glass tumbler. But on the side of the building, another cop was overseeing a half-dozen men scrubbing spray-painted graffiti from the wall with wire brushes. The men were ragged and gaunt, chained with shackles on their legs, their jaws speckled with whiskers. The graffiti was abraded and half-erased, but I could still make out some of the words. Qingxie, xiejiao, ni: “canted, beveled, you.” I knew the meanings, but it was a strange juxtaposition, especially on a police station wall.
“What’s wrong, what are you looking at?” Liu asked.
“Those words, who wrote them here?”
“I don’t know, but they’ve been showing up here and there around town. Someone keeps writing them, and the police keep erasing them. Qingxie ni, xiejiao ni. You see the cop out front there? That’s what they do: just sit in the sun half-asleep, drinking their tea. Things are loose enough that someone can slip in and paint a few words on the wall during the night. But as soon as they discover it, they send a crew out to remove them.”
I turned the words around in my mind. Cant you, bevel you. They’re going to cant and bevel you. They’re going to cant and bevel you. I stared at the characters as they were scoured away, the men rasping dully with their brushes. Fuck the Police or Free Tibet I could understand; they were slogans of blunt dissent, their message was compact and unambiguous. But They’re going to cant and bevel you? It was subversive at a whole different level. The phrase was abstruse and oblique but had a mysterious resonance. I turned it over in my mind. Cant you, bevel you. Shave you down, file you into angles, cut at your sense of self until you fit with the machinery, the levers and gears of the system.
The work crew scraped at the wall, dipping their brushes in buckets of kerosene. Soon the spray-painted pigments would be washed away, to drain with the blood of the butchered pig on down to Lake Erhai, which reclined like liquefied shale on the floor of the valley in the distance.
Liu elbowed me in the ribs. “Come on, man, don’t stare at the cops. That’s just asking for trouble. Let’s head over to my place.”
“Who are those guys in leg irons? They look pretty grim,” I asked as we continued walking.
“Political prisoners. They make them do all the shit work, to show the people what happens to an enemy of the state. Usually they’re Tibetans or Uyghurs. Or poets.”
A young woman walking toward us called out hello to Liu. She had a salamander look to her eyes and lips, as if she might wriggle away any moment, flicker her tongue or camouflage herself against a tree. She wore short cutoff jeans, flip-flops, and a sky blue blouse. The lines of her body were smooth and silken against the pale marble and slanting light, and her black hair was pulled into a topknot with a chopstick stuck through to hold it together. I forgot about the graffiti and cursed myself for not being able to think of a single charming thing to say to a pretty girl — but she turned to me and said, “Hey, what’s your name?” Ah. I’d forgotten how simple the dance could be. Her name was Su.
She was holding a Mandarin edition of Tropic of Cancer, her finger marking a page as if she’d just looked up mid-sentence.
“How’s the book?” I asked her.
She smiled as if the answer were self-evident. “They’ve translated all of Henry Miller’s books,” she said. “I’ve read every one.”
Thank god the Cultural Revolution was over and the sexual revolution had begun.
We walked up the street to Liu’s place. We stepped through a doorway with Café hand-painted on the door. It was a tiny space crowded with half-broken chairs and banged-up lacquer tables flecked with gold, shabby and radiant like everything here seemed to be. Liu’s girlfriend, An, stood at a counter, boiling water on a hotplate. She had round features like a Russian doll that holds concentric versions of itself.
“Where’d you get all this antique furniture?” I asked.
“We get it off the street,” An said. “People don’t want this old stuff anymore. They just throw it away, but we like it. Otherwise, what are we going to do, go to Ikea?” She laughed again, and a shelf of sun fell across her eyes and lips as she poured out a cup of coffee for me. These underground youths were part of an alternative culture that didn’t identify with the status quo, so just stepped aside to let the machinery lumber by without them. They played folk music and cooked communal meals and didn’t worry about what tomorrow held, as if the future had been preempted by power structures and ideologies, old men far away who were mummified with allegiances and loyalties and viewed the world through cracked prisms.
“Come on outside. Lao Chen is here,” Liu said. We ducked out the back door to a walled courtyard. A couple of banana trees lifted ragged fronds to the sky; red and orange flowers cascaded next to an iron gate. Beneath a lychee tree a few young men and women sat talking around a table while a shag-headed kid played a guitar.
“Hey, this is Lao Chen,” Liu said. “He’s always out with the hill tribes playing music. He records their songs and comes back with crazy instruments.”
Lao Chen wore heavy boots, a stained white T-shirt, and had a thick beard, an anomaly among Chinese men, who usually have smooth cheeks and at most a wispy chin beard. His eyes crinkled into a smile even before there was anything to laugh at.
“Yeah, I’m always up in the mountains,” Lao Chen said. “Each village has its own instruments and songs — every mountain is its own world. They’ve never heard of Michael Jackson, that’s for sure, and they don’t know how to sing happy fuckin’ birthday.” He leaned back and let loose a bellow of laughter, as if not knowing how to sing “Happy Birthday” was the greatest boon one could hope for in this life.
The guitar player grinned and handed me the instrument. It was an old beater missing the G-string, perfect to bang away at here among the marble walls and pretty girls and banana flowers. My fingertips had gone soft, the wire strings bit into my skin. An brought out a porcelain flask and poured plum wine into tea cups. I took a sip, the sour sweetness spread from my tongue all through my mind. Lao Chen took a bamboo Jew’s harp from an embroidered sheath hanging around his neck and twanged along with me as I strummed. I looked up past the old tile roofs to the mountain peak way up at thirteen thousand feet. We were halfway in elevation between the mountaintop and the sea. I felt like I had just been popped out of a Jell-O mold, glistening and quivering in the sun. I crooned out a folk song I’d written in Tiananmen Square a few years before:
Gray flowers in the morning
gray flowers beneath the wheels of city streets
gray flowers raining from the sky
gray flowers filling up my mind
What vehicles drive here
what fuel does their locomotion burn
we dig the earth for combustion engine dreams but only find
gray flowers our buried blood and bones
Busy days along the boulevard
dollars stab like knives of ideology
concrete carousels of riches fertilized by
gray flowers of human poverty
Tanks machine guns steel footsteps
beat popcorn smiles onto the world of TV
where have all our children gone
they’re gray flowers, petals fallen from the sun
Gray flowers in the evening
gray flowers beneath the wheels of spinning stars
gray flowers straining towards the sky
gray flowers are all that’s left inside my mind
“What song was that?” Su asked when I finished.
“Something I wrote in the capital a while ago.”
“But what’s it about?” she asked, “I don’t understand English.”
“Well, buried bones lifting back up to the sun, I guess.” I didn’t know what to say.
I had taken my guitar to Tiananmen Square one autumn day and stood there on the concrete acreage where I remembered watching footage of tanks driving on the streets in the wake of protests on June 4, 1989. Fifteen years after the massacre, I started strumming my guitar and the song emerged of its own accord, as if the ghost of Woody Guthrie was whispering in my ear. Platoons of Liberation Army soldiers marched past me, uniforms crisp and creased, assault rifles held at identical angles at their hips, movements mechanical and precise, all the joints articulated in synchronicity. But local people wandered around looking harrowed and crumpled, as if their insides had been replaced with old straw. A pair of plainclothes police stopped and asked what I was doing. “Just playing my guitar,” I said. Just trying to drive a stake in the heart of the vampire. I guess I seemed harmless enough, at least more harmless than the hassle of arresting an American, and they left me alone. When I was in the United States a few months after that, amid endless news of perpetual war, “Gray Flowers” didn’t seem any less relevant than it had on the grand pacified stage of Tiananmen.
Lao Chen clapped his hands and said, “Tell you what, man, let’s get together tonight and have a jam. We can meet up at A-lian’s bar, Sun Eyeland. It’s just up the street on Renmin Lu. You’re not busy, are you?”
“I’m free for the rest of my life, man.”
“We’ll get some friends together, have a coupla beers, get a groove going. I’ll bring my mouth organ.”
“What do you mean, a harmonica?”
“No, it’s a hill tribe instrument made of bamboo and beeswax.”
“They call it a khaen. Come on down, we’ll see if we can wake up a few stones.”
I was flushed from sun and mountains and wine, from making new friends and from memories of old ones. I drained my glass and said that sounded good to me. But some stones are better off left sleeping.
Sun Eyeland occupied a listing building of wood and stone. The interior was decorated with batik and tie-dye, green and blue lights hung down and swayed from the ceiling. Guitars leaned in corners like broke friends. Dreadlocked hipsters sat around clanking bottles. A few people brought food, which they put on a table for everyone to share. A-lian was a calm youth with long hair tied back with a paisley bandana. He plugged a big bass guitar into an amp that crackled when he adjusted the knobs. Lao Chen got up on the stage and played his mouth organ into a mic, making an eerie polyphonic wail. The khaen was a crown of bamboo tubes rising between his hands.
Su was there when I arrived. Her body had a smooth curl and flow to it. She seemed to be molded from warm wax. Her eyes crinkled with affection as if we’d known each other in a previous lifetime. We put our hands together and swayed to the music, breathing on each other’s necks.
Lao Chen waved me over to the stage. “What do you want to play?” he asked me.
“I don’t know, whatever, anything.” I plugged in the house guitar, and we got a rusty, creaky groove going. I was ready to strip off my clothes, peel off my skin, return to meat and nerves, to become a naked animal of sensation. I tweaked the amp so it verged in and out of feedback like a siren. More people arrived, the room became crowded and hot. Someone sat on the edge of the stage and played a hand drum. Two women in denim skirts danced body to body, the space filled with pheromones and sweat. It was a jumble of rhythm and wine, a gelatin of desire.
“Sing something!” Lao Chen shouted above the fray.
I squeezed the guitar and closed my eyes. The music swelled like a calliope song. I tried to recall a folk song, a love song, some happy jig, but all I could think of was the phrase of graffiti from the police station wall. I began chanting it, interspersed with whatever words came into my head:
They’re going to cant and bevel you
they’re going to cant and bevel you
into a useable interface they’re going to cant and bevel you
into machine assimilation, they’re going to cant and bevel you
till you can’t find yourself in your face
they’re going to cant and bevel you
with an adze and a plane they’re going to shave you down
mold you like clay into an image of themselves
they’re going to cant and bevel you
till you start to think something might be wrong
they’re going to cant and bevel you
I opened my eyes and looked around. The lights swung in wide arcs like tetherballs, blue and green swirled across the walls. Someone kicked a chair over, a bottle clattered to the floor. Liu handed a beer up to me, I glugged it down as the wail of the khaen encircled me and the rhythm surged on. Su had wrapped a shawl around her head. When I jumped down from the stage, she opened the shawl and encircled us both. “You’re a colored balloon,” I said.
“I thought you were going to pass out up there,” she said. “You looked like Jesus Christ trying to cut open god’s belly and climb inside.” She leaned forward and nuzzled my collarbone. She didn’t care about anything and neither did I. But Lao Chen shouted for me to come back and play.
I jumped up to the stage and grabbed the guitar. The sound of the khaen was swelling and filling the space. But then everything shifted, like a stylus jumping the groove of a record. Red light came swerving through the room and megaphone distortion blasted in as a police van pulled up outside. Uniformed men muscled in the door, plexiglass face shields hiding their features with gleam. The crowd had no way to get out, and the cops didn’t know what to do once they’d breeched the entrance: shoot everyone or arrest everyone or let them run away. A guitar fell over with a crash, someone punched out a window. The green and blue bulbs revolved in larger and larger circles. Two tides of people pushed against each other, the police coming in and the counter-culture youth trying to get out. The loudspeaker from the police van blared electrified commands that didn’t sound like human language, and from down the street other sounds came mixing in, someone singing karaoke with exaggerated vibrato, and the looped recording of a junkman calling out his obbligato for scrap metal as he pushed his cart through the night. Su was there at the seam between the cops and the crowd. A soldier grabbed her arm; her chopstick fell to the ground and her hair released into a tangled cascade. I tried to push through to her, but someone was pulling me the other direction. It was Lao Chen, shouting something I couldn’t understand. The red light swept across the room, red blending with the blue and green in a kaleidoscope mash. The cops turned on a strobe light for some reason, creating a weird stop-motion effect, as if time were being cut into thin slices. A squad of police stood outside, each holding a breaching tool. Apparently someone thought we would be barricaded in here like an insurgent army, or maybe they just wanted to practice mobilizing the gear. The shining enameled cylinders said in English, Blackhawk Twin Turbo Battering Ram, Dynamic Entry. Everything was clotted in sweat and confusion, nobody understood their role or function. Sparks exploded from the fuse box near the door, the interior lights went dead. All that remained was the red light and the strobe so that everything seemed to be bleeding to death in slow motion. The megaphone blared its android noise, and somewhere beneath it was the sound of water flowing through the channels cut in the stone streets of this town that had stood still for centuries, abiding in a slow senescence, but which was now beginning to swirl and crack along with everything else.
AUTHOR’S NOTE. [In the great tradition of historically/poetically-conscious travel writing, poet and musician Scott Ezell begins his account with the following]:
In September 2004 I set out on a journey along the edge of Tibet. Starting from the foothills of the Himalayas in southwest China, I traveled north into further, higher landscapes by local bus, hitchhiking, and a motorcycle I bought along the way. I speak Mandarin, which allowed me to communicate all down the road with villagers, Buddhist lamas, nomads with chunks of bone braided in their hair, and police at security checkpoints. After six weeks and 1,200 miles, I reached Kekexili, a wilderness reserve 17,000 feet above sea level. From there I crossed the Kunlun Mountains and descended to Golmud, a city at the crossroads of Tibet, China proper, and Xinjiang. That journey is the basis for the following narrative. Over the next fifteen years I returned a dozen times to Tibet and southwest China. I witnessed transformations so shocking that I felt I was taking blows to my own bones. Massive dam systems killed rivers and displaced communities, mountains were raked apart to provide gravel for construction projects, and the region was increasingly militarized and surveilled as China tilted toward its grim police state superpower status.
Having observed these trends, it was not enough to write about Tibet merely as a fascinating landscape and culture. I began to combine the changes I witnessed with the structure of my original travels, making it a journey through time as well as through physical geographies. What follows, then, is a narrative that evokes the majesty of Tibetan landscapes, the unique dignity of the Tibetan people, and the sensory extremity of navigating almost pre-industrial communities at the edge of the map, while also encompassing the erosion of cultures and ecosystems.
Today China holds one million Uyghurs in concentration camps in Xinjiang, democratic freedoms have been smashed in Hong Kong, human rights lawyers are held in black jails, and the government openly surveils its population. But the systematic oppressions of “empire” are not unique to China. The seizure of land and genocide against Indigenous peoples in the United States and elsewhere, the legacy of slavery and the present-day wage-slavery of the global economy, and the colonization of Tibet as a means of territorial expansion and resource extraction — these are all variations of centralized authority exerting power over minority, marginalized, and disenfranchised peoples.
This narrative journey “to the end of the empire” serves as a microcosm in which the terms of contemporary life stand in stark relief against the vast, raw landscapes of Tibet. Perhaps by better understanding the dynamics between centers and margins, and between authority and autonomy, we can begin to reconceive a sustainable, peaceful, and egalitarian residence on earth.
July 2021 Chiapas, Mexico