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Manoa 13.2 (2001) 138-148
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As I followed the blue line on the map, tracing the curving Dadu River upstream to its source in the mountains, I could already feel a light breeze blowing gently out of the shadows of the high peaks. I had the sense that my journey had already begun--that I had taken the first step on my way.
I could see myself passing between the mountains' huge shadows and the sunlight's brilliant beauty. I saw myself encountering the greatest variety of people, with different types of clothing, skin coloring, accents, and even different temperaments. In response to all of this, a lofty sentiment arose in my heart--that I was throwing myself spontaneously into life, into the vast world, into art. And I felt that surely this was a serious thing I was doing.
This journey, as well as this story, begins at Luding, where I had been attending a meeting of the writers' group PEN International. When the meeting ended, my literary friends boarded the bus back to Chengdu, but I decided to head in another direction, taking the kind of solitary trip that I was used to. In the station, the smell of overripe apricots mixed with the odor of rubber tires. It was July, and clouds of dust rose with the hubbub of voices.
As I listened to the announcement of the departure schedule for the buses, it occurred to me that it mattered very little that my friends were departing in the opposite direction. Abruptly, a young guy wearing cheap sunglasses approached me. With trembling hands, he tugged at my cuff and whispered, "Hey, do you want to buy some jinzi?"
I said I didn't want any jingzi, thinking he had just offered to sell me some sunglasses. He looked like a wandering peddler from Zhejiang.
"Not jingzi," he said. "Jinzi. Gold!"
"How much do you have?"
"More than ten pounds of placer gold."
I knew that smugglers came to these places to buy gold, but they certainly didn't peddle it like this. I shrugged my shoulders and walked away. Just then the bus to Chengdu started its engine. Amid the roar and fumes, the guy caught up with me again. He wanted me to follow him to a secluded place where he could show me his wares. [End Page 138]
"Come on. Take a look," he urged stubbornly. His crazy eyes flashed with greed.
Disappointed that I wasn't interested, he finally left me alone. He was like those people you run into who suffer from mental illness. He appeared stupefied, talking nonstop about the thing he had the least chance of possessing--the thing that has made us Chinese lose our reason and our self-respect: gold.
As I set out on my journey, the sky was unusually lovely. Travelers heading in this direction, however, are tormented by dust and the cruel intensity of the sunlight. I can still distinctly remember what I looked like when I reached the town that was the Danba county seat. The town and I looked just alike: smudged with dust and so broiled by the sun that we seemed lifeless. I self-consciously made my way through the narrow streets at four o'clock in the afternoon, walking past empty shops that yawned lazily, houses releasing the day's heat, and the cool shade of the sparse trees. I entered a dark lane, and the sound of my own footsteps echoed in the silence. As I approached the door of the first building, a middle-aged man with a dull-witted expression stuck his head out. His eyes were empty and lifeless. I passed his door and walked back and forth in the lane twice without finding any signs advertising rooms to let. When I emerged from the lane, I saw that I was the only one standing in the open in the sunlight. I gazed at a row of windows, whose paint had faded.
A frail child appeared in front of me and asked if I needed a place to...