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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Early Morning in Inner Mongolia with Don Frantz

I am in Eastern Inner Mongolia and since China is all in one time zone (with Beijing being the “correct “ time), here the sun rises around 3:45 am. So I have come to join the day.

The eastern side of the river promenade is lined with new six-story high pink apartment buildings. On the western side of the promenade is the river and an island of lush tall green grass. Already the morning feels more civil since just before dawn the multi-colored neon rope lights every angled line of the apartments, and the mile of flood lamps pointing toward the island with slime-green colored gels, were doused. Two bridges away, a miniature Three Mile Island shaped energy plant starts to divert its power from dimming lights to the city’s air conditioners that are being flipped on.

The life at dawn finds the old and new China mingling while few are looking. In fact there is evidence that the architect had the concept that the whole world should mingle, or he could not make up his mind. The river bank’s bright white faux Chinese cement wall cast in the Ming style is the only nod to the leader’s national heritage. The central ornament of the bridge is reminiscent of Prague, the Victorian lamps line the walk, Grand Central tented structures that we first saw at the Montreal World’s Fair alternate with wild techno light sculptures, in the north the proverbial Mongol horse statue finds its southern balance with two giant swans in flight. And the brightly colored abstract column art piece is countered by the row of Saludins, the symbol of the 13th century Mongol army. A little French hedge pathway guides the morning workout club to the blue and yellow aerobic machines adorned with bodies twisting and turning with little effort.

Those that do break a sweat are the multitude of joggers that don’t hold on to rubber handles. They just run like yuppies in Central Park, Michigan Avenue or Venice Beach. And like those joggers they sport Michigan University, LA Lakers, and the NY Yankee logoed apparel. One nods in my direction and whispers "Wai guo ren.” He meant ‘foreigner’ and it unveils the truth that they never did see Kobe Bryant make a 3-pointer or even know his name.

Ladies in wide brimmed hats protect their complexion, in a life long beauty ambition to stay as white as possible. Walking their little dogs with all civility until the summer heat inside the male and the smell of the bitch bursts the image in a dog fight that their glorified leader, Genghis Khan would be proud of.

Down on the river path, four water women grind the clothes with the same tense arms the great mothers used. The sight of the bent backs triggers a pity inside me for the lack of even a laundry mat. The sympathetic swell vaporizes as I hear the giddy chat in their voices. Then the wooden sticks are raised and in an unconscious collective rhythm they pound out yesterday’s dirt. So content in their work, I am not sure that they don’t have a Maytag super deluxe at home, but choose to come to the riverbank anyway.

Further upstream a few paces, for safety, four elder Mongolians, white haired or withered but not both, use the dawn to hold on to their right of manhood. In their day, living in the countryside in the grassland villages they probably won their bride this very way. Such is the importance of a bow and arrow to a Mongol.

Clearly now the equipment is feather-weight graphite from an ESPN or AMEX type of catalogue, but the posture is the same when the string is pulled and the spine straightens upward. No less than 50 yards away, a circular two-foot target hangs between two trees over a well worn path. Two men shoot. One man, far up the path, collects the arrows which wiz by the target. The fourth man sits a mere three feet from the line of fire beside the brightly colored ringed target. His job to quickly report whether the red or the green or the black ring is scored, assuming his orange jacket does not itself become the target.

As I venture to raise my camera, another man of the same generation, completely clothed in white linen, raises his ruby red cell phone to capture the same pose. Seeing me, he calls down to the archers and the Mongolian rolls of the ‘R’ and guttural sounds as if clearing your throat from a long night’s mucous build up, cut the river’s silence. What I thought was a request for permission went further. The old archer held the tense pose with bow in outstretched arm, and fingers plucked around the stretched string nearly shaving his cheek, until we both got the shot.

From one photographer to another he tips up his white hat and says, “Wha Shun Dung?” Again, but slower “Wha Shun Dung?” Somehow looking at the eyes helped and I broke the cliffhanger, “No, Niu Yue.” Failing my Mandarin tones and enunciation I fell back on good “ol New York”. “Niu Yue” he calls to his friendly bowmen. As if relieved that I am not a politician, the old boys give me a way. Back to Chinese, the Linen Man proudly announces he is Mongol and gives me the Mongol names of the shooters. Given that these were the descendants of those that conquered and slaughtered 1/3 of the known world a bit ago, and that their arrows were already balanced on the strings, I quickly offered up, “Sambainul!” and a host of “Sambainul’s” rang out to confirm the Mongolain welcome. The white linen arm pointed to the man in the orange jacket, “Zhe shi Wang.” “Wang!” I say. He nods. Beijing ren?” And the old man confirmed with a roll of his eyes that a Han had joined the morning club among Mongols. If we knew any more of the language I expected him to kindly add, “Maybe he’ll learn something here.”

Beyond them a fisherman faces the river. His back to me, he is that pure and universal still angler. Waiting as they wait, thinking about life, past and present as they all do. And the whole world passes by behind them. I never realized with so much to see, there are those that can proudly claim to be the anti-people-watchers. They just see no point to such a spectator sport.

These individualists draw the eyes, but the dominant sights on the promenade are the lines and columns of pastel silk pajama suits decorating the tai chi group exercises. For as far as my eye travels up the promenade, clusters of softly moving bodies catch the low golden sunlight. And that light flicks into my eyes bouncing off the shiny silver swords they all use to cut the chilly air.These weapons in the hands of mostly old women swinging them above their heads, quietly stabs and scoops their space contradicting the recorded Chinese music that blares louder than their serenity.

Slow, deliberate, controlled motions guide each step at the perfect placement rolling through the heel, metatarsals, toes. Two fingers extended as the form has been defined. The beginners or those that have forgotten what the grandmother told them, checking out of the corner of their eyes. Others in a solitary concentration have achieved their own personal Zen.

The next group has moved on to lay down their sword and study the art of the red fans. These dames in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s flick open the brilliant fans with a collective ruffled sound that attracts the attention of any man of any age walking by. Just as the opening of a lady’s fan has done for centuries.

While they do not actually attain an air of seduction, it is comforting to see them lay down their sword practice; else I may only imagine a conspiracy for a mass homicide of husbands later in the day.

In contrast to these uniform and disciplined dances, the old and soon to be old walk pass me. Sages and fools mingling on the river front, I presume. The octogenarian in an elegant stroll that all admire except the limping stroke victim that tries to hide the jealous glance. I have been to the Chinese hospital in Haila’er and know it cannot be too comforting for anyone of these pedestrians. If walking in the morning might delay another trip there, they would walk, limp or crawl. Wardrobe choices also bring comfort - loose for the body. And for the mind, something familiar; something almost spiritual. Particularly true for the quiet elder that came to sit at the other end of the bench. His old olive green CCPC Party suit, Mao hat and dark blue elastic slippers made and footed by the millions. Clothes make the man.

Now late enough, gardeners infiltrate those that only recreate. Squatting down over petunias and marigolds the city's army of country peasants who have moved to the city find familiarity as their hands dig into the soil. Another brigade appears with straw brooms sweeping the walkway that runs over 3 miles long on both sides of the glistening river.

The archers take down their target to allow the bicyclists to ride the dirt trail to work. The old limp toward home. The joggers are replaced by sprinters getting in their hotter sweat before the entire city wakes. All the species of man and woman dwindle on the river front by 7am except for the fishermen and the washerwomen who grow in number. But not all are here for recreation.

Even the silent green suited patriot and patriarch sitting beside me on the bench decides that the sun is getting too strong. He rocks forward but misses his rhythm. He chooses the second alternative - two hands open palm placed just above his knees. Elbows out. Pressing down. Head plunging forward. His bum lifts the entire low bench. The little bit of military might that is still in the suit then does the rest. Standing straight he glances back and down to me for the first time.

I had already looked up from my blackberry to witness his achievement. I offer closure to our morning on the bench together, "Ni hao"; ‘Hello’ offered awkwardly late in our time together. He surprises me with a charmed smile, pauses and then in a deep bass returned the favor with gusto, "Probst!" I could only guess it was Russian as he wanted to revel in the fact that we were more different than any other two men on a bench this morning.

I accepted the note. But as he turned away I added "Zao shang hao" (good morning). His shoulders chuckled. In a quieter voice he concurred, "Zao shang hao." And with that I put my hands just above my knees, waited on the white chichu puppy to scurry by, plunged by head forward and then stood facing forward into the full sun.