#168: Salt and Fire

The fullest week yet. My brother Charlie landed Tuesday night and Wednesday we checked out the Shanghai Book Fair, saw Junot Diaz speak in a packed lecture room at the Shanghai Library. Thursday we took the bullet train to Zhenjiang to meet Dad who was in the area for work, then drove to Yangzhou.

Yangzhou is a former port city. It still is, I guess, but its heyday was centuries ago, during the Tang dynasty, when the sea had not yet receded from the coast and places like Shanghai were still underwater. Yangzhou sits on a manmade canal (运河, yùn hé, “transport-river”) that runs all the way from Beijing. Its position along the canal made Yangzhou one of the most important trading ports in the world. Fortunes were made, especially from salt. The salt trade directly and indirectly drew merchants, laborers, artists, scholars. I don’t know how much of this is accurate; I gleaned what I could from our guide who explained everything in Chinese. (She would later say that she learned English years ago but “gave most of it back to the teacher.”)

We leave our hotel at nine every morning, get shuttled to museums and meals. We visit two salt barons’ garden estates during a thunderstorm. My favorite of the two has numerous species of bamboo, imported stone, smart architectural details and beams of “ten-thousand-year” cypress. “I’ve told you about my plan right?” Charlie says in the car. He wants to build his own Chinese garden one day. “Except not as big as those. Only half or a quarter the size. It’ll be Cheng Garden.” A pause. “Is there already a Cheng Garden?” None of us know.

I’m exhausted, and only partly from the heat and humidity. I feel myself still fighting for it, fighting for control, for the stability of a routine. I get in ten minutes of morning meditation instead of my usual twenty. I’m perpetually late at meeting everyone in the hotel lobby. I need that vacation from my vacation.

But travel is meant to be a shake-up, a period of tumult and relative chaos. Lightning strikes and a fire rages through the woods, makes way for new growth. It’s a fire phase, and in brief flashes I am able to recognize it as such. I’m able to remember that it’s fine, everything’s fine. Really. I am ultimately OK.

Back in Shanghai now. But time to get going again. Charlie’s waking up and we’re heading into the city for the rest of the day. And tomorrow morning, I leave for Japan.