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date. 2024

locations: dali, xizhou, shaxi, baisha, lijiang

Image by Annie Spratt

May 3 - Baisha Village, Yunnan, China

I’m only allowed four entries on my Indian student visa, so each time I leave, I try to take full advantage before returning to Varanasi.

Having recently noticed that my old Chinese visa is still valid, I decided to kill two birds with one stone. Avoid Varanasi, visit China.

I’d last been to China around six years ago, and then primarily for an internship in Beijing. While there, I’d visited a few cities — Chongqing, Tianjin - but had never really ventured outside of their smoggy bubble.

On this trip, I thought, I’d take the opposite approach. Let’s see some villages. I want to explore the old China. The farms, the gods, and the hills.

And so, I’ve arrived in Ancient Dali.




Let me go right ahead and say it. Damn.


The sure ain’t Beijing.

Old Dali is a restored Bai village, smothered between the Yunnan hills and glistening Erhai lake.

It’s really really nice.

And no one speaks a word of English.

I wander around, blissfully clueless, eating whatever is put in my hands.

I think I drank some plum wine? Is that a thing?

I spent three days in Dali. The first night, I had dinner with a former Penn professor who’d quit her job and moved to Dali to become a TikTok influencer. She’s also a pole dancer.

The next day, I strolled around town trying my best not to buy things that I definitely wouldn’t be able to fit in my luggage.

On the last day, I visited the Three Pagodas Temple just outside of town. A massive temple complex that I’m pretty sure is Buddhist? In the afternoon, I stopped by a nearby village called Xizhou, famous for its instagrammable wheat fields (it’s a thing. Google it.).

The ex-professor slash pole dancing influencer suggested that I go to Shaxi, so on the morning of May 1, I packed myself into a passenger van, and prayed it was heading in that direction.


Made in China

I’d been planning on naming this journal entry ‘Made in China’, as an homage to my 90s American childhood which had been entirely Made in China.

My American dream; Made in China.

The GameBoy which I huddled over with my friends for hours at a stretch. Made in China.

My family’s van which broke down every time we left the city limits. Made in China.

My walkman, scooter, swing set, baseball mitt. Made in China. My world - Made in China.

When I spend time in a new country, I try to organize my observations and experiences around a theme. In India, it was spirituality. In Nepal, nature. In Africa, the body.

In China, I thought that Creation would make for a good theme.

I’d expected an industrial zone filled with factories, farms, and machines. I’d expected mines, trucks, and minerals. Hard workers, dirty hands, broken bodies.

Had I been expecting…America?


A ‘Made in China’ America? A ‘Time is Money’ America? An ‘If you touch it, you buy it’ America? A ‘Money-back guarantee’ America? An ‘All-in-one, one-size-fits-all, disposable’ America?

But no. I can still recall the long hours back in 2017, when my Chinese colleagues stayed at their desks long after I’d gone home or out for dinner and drinks. Or why not a movie? And a dip in the pool.

My Chinese coworkers were part of the infamous 996 system. 9am - 9pm, 6 days a week.

The middle-aged quiet woman who had never taken a vacation day in her entire adult life. The way I would waltz in, late, after breakfast, only to be warmly welcomed by The Boss who’d just fired another local employee for “lack of promise”. The double standards, warm wishes, cold stares, and crammed metros of Metro Beijing.

A ‘Could Have Been’ America.


This is getting depressing. Yunnan is anything but depressing.

Let’s talk about the Three Pagodas Temple. According to

Seated with the back against Mt.Cangshan, and facing the Erhai Lake in the front, the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple of Dali constitutes a situation of tripartite confrontation with a large pagoda and two small ones. As one of the oldest and most magnificent architectures standing gracefully and forcefully in South China, it is a famed place of interest, a symbol of ancient history and culture of Yunnan Province.

The Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple was originally built during the reign of Emperor Quan Fengyou of Nanzhao Kingdom (824-859). It is said that the three pagodas was constructed for the reasons of advocating Buddhism as well as dominating riddled floods in the area (according to local Buddhism culture, Buddhist pagoda can dominate beasts who control natural things such as floods).

During the maintenance of the Three Pagodas in 1977, more than 600 cultural relics were sorted out at the top and the base of the Qianxun pagoda. These relics include Buddha statues of periods of Nanzhao Kingdom and the Kingdom of Dali (local regimes of ancient China), hand-copied Buddhist sutras, copper sheets with words, kinds of bronze mirrors and medicines, such as cinnabar, sanders, cartilaginous, corals, micas, etc. This batch of relics is the most important and richest that has been found so far to the benefit of the historical research of kingdoms of Nanzhao and Dali.

Impressive, right?

After the cramped stone temples of India, where visitors are treated to a mystical haze of incense, flickering lamps, and melodic murmurs, I was hardly prepared for the gleaming brightness of Chengsheng Temple, with its charging stations, soda machines, and ATMs.

The towering gates thrown wide open, sunlight streaming in through the freshly painted rooms with carpeted stairs, colourful idols (are they made from plastic?), and souvenir shops.

No need to remove your shoes. Photos are encouraged at Chengsheng Temple. Small tour groups laugh and pose for selfies. Far away are the kneeling village elders of Tamil Nadu who bathe the Siva linga in fresh cow milk and lotus petals. Impossibly distant, the broken stone tiles that press coldly against the soles of my feet, crumbling grey statues huddled in their tiny cells, angry tolling of bells hurrying the throngs of devotees along.

Chongsheng Temple is open for business.

Great trickling ponds of water line the manicured paths. Beautiful stone benches to sit and read at. (Guilty.)

The orderly guests lounge on the freshly cut grass.

It’s not until I finally arrive at the main temple pavilion (a 20 minute walk up the sprawling temple hillside), drawn in by the familiar drones of Buddhist chanting, that it dawns on me.

In Indian temples, Italian churches, Sufi mosques, I’d always been awed by the sense of the divine. The Other. The Beyond. The mystical. The ineffable. THE SPIRIT.

The church has been a place for me to escape from the world. Escape, even, from myself.

The Wailing Wall. The Dome on the Rock.

St Francis’s cathedral perched, quite literally, on the edge of Assisi. One must climb down deep into its cellar, bent over, to kneel before the tomb of the decorated saint. The bright Italian sun and sweet scoops of gelato left to the other, less-saintly tourists.

God’s presence pushes down upon me, crushing me into the sublime.

Meron on Lag B’Omer. Millions of frenzied dancers, jumping around the giant crackling bonfires. The Sistine Chapel. Stained glass windows filtering away the clear light through images of divine imagination. It’s easy to lose your mind when you enter holy spaces; in fact, it’s recommended.

These are places of refuge for billions of people. They provide a sense of transcendence, escape, the divine.

But China is different.

In China, there is holiness, certainly. But without the vaguest hint of the holy.

In China there is worship. But without a touch of the divine.

In China, one is not allowed to escape, even for a moment, from the world.

There is no space for the intangible, the spirit, the ideal.

If god exists, let him exist here with us. Let us worship plastic idols, illuminated by LEDs. Let us pray in the light.

There is no mystery. No hidden caves or tantric reveries for the monks to hide away.

In China, do not search for the Beyond. Do not search for the spirit.

Simply pay careful attention to what you see around you. Extend your devotion to the very real, very material, very alive, very mundane, very human world of the people.

The Chinese temple is afforded no special rights. It must stay right where it is, with the rest of us.

(What’s the opposite of kensho?)

No heaven other than the earth. No spirit devoid of the body. No salvation without revolution.

Salvation occurs right here; not with meditation or worship, but with the People.

Salvation, too, it seems, is Made in China.



The Diary of a Madman, by Lu Xun 

My nights are sleepless. Only thorough investigation will bring clarity.

Those people. They have been pilloried by their magistrate, beaten by their squires, had their wits requisitioned by bailiffs, seen their parents driven to early graves by creditors. And yet, through it all, none looked as fearful, as savage as they did yesterday.

The most curious thing of all — that woman, hitting her son. “I’m so angry, I could eat you!” That’s what she said. But looking at me all the while. I flinched in terror, I couldn’t help myself. The crowd — their faces bleached greenish-white — roared with laughter, exposing their fangs. Mr. Chen rushed up to drag me home.

To drag me home. Back home, though, everyone was pretending they didn’t know me, that same look in their eyes. The moment I stepped into the study, the door was latched on the outside, as if I were a chicken in a coop. I had no idea what lay at the bottom of it all.

A few days ago, one of our tenants — a farmer from Wolf Cub Village — came to report a famine. The most hated man in the village had been beaten to death, he told my brother, and some of the villagers had dug out his heart and liver, then fried and eaten them, for courage. When I interrupted, the farmer and my brother  glanced at me — repeatedly. Now — now I recognise the look in their eyes — exactly that of the people I passed yesterday.

I shiver at the memory.

If they are eating people, I might well be next.

That woman scolding her son — ‘I could eat you’ — those bleached faces and bared fangs, their roars of laughter; the farmer’s story , the signs are all there.i now see that their speech is poisoned, their laughter knife-edged, their teeth fearfully white — teeth that eat people.

I don’t think I’m a bad man, but I now see my fate has been in the balance since I tread on the Records of the Past. They keep their own, secret accounts — a mystery to me. And they can turn on you in an instant. When my brother taught me to write essays, he would always mark me up if I found grounds to criticise the virtuous or rehabilitate the villainous: ‘It is a rare man who can go against received wisdom.’ How can I guess what they are really thinking, when their fangs are poised over my flesh?

Only thorough investigation will bring clarity. I seem to remember, though only vaguely, that people have been eating each other since ancient times. When I flick through the history books, I find no dates, only those fine Confucian principles ‘benevolence, righteousness, morality’ snaking their way across each page. As I studied them again, through one of my more implacably sleepless nights, I finally glimpsed what lay between each line, of every book: ‘Eat people!’ All these words — written in books, spoken by the farmer — stare strangely, smirkingly at me.

Are they planning to eat me too?

Further thought is painful.

I now realise I have unknowingly spent my life in a country that has been eating human flesh for four thousand years. My sister, I remember, died while my brother was managing the household. He probably fed her secretly to us, by mixing her into our food.

I, too, may have unknowingly eaten my sister’s flesh. And now it’s my own turn…

With the weight of four thousand years of cannibalism bearing down on me, even if once I was innocent how can I now face real humans?

Are there children who have not yet eaten human flesh?

Save the children…




Whether arriving in Yunnann from the East or the West, it’s quite jarring to see the liberal use that the Chinese make of plastic. Fake facades, fake idols, fake art.

Even I, no stranger to American consumerism, catch myself rolling my eyes at the fake thatched roofs that coat the villages.

Shameless imitations.

No, not imitations. Fabrications!

Well, if we’re being honest with ourselves, why can’t god be made of plastic? Why can’t culture be cheap and accessible? Would that make it less beautiful? Or would it relieve me of my precious sense of superiority?


Never mind. Here I am again. Lost in… 


May 8 - Lijiang

Yesterday, having purchased two pairs of light linen pants from a roadside tailor, and walking back over the rain-washed cobblestones of Old Lijiang, I chanced upon an old Buddhist temple where several middle-aged women were busily refreshing the flower vases and large bottles of alcohol being offered to the various colourful gods.

The temple stood upon a small hill, which I reached by ascending a handsome red staircase that circled the large koi pond.

Marvelling at the strange and ordinary, and having failed to strike up a conversation with the temple ladies (they kept insisting, ‘Baoping! Boating!’ Which — I checked — translates to ‘magic stick’, to which I had no ready response, and so left them to their work), I prepared to leave.

And that is when I saw a delivery man in a red outfit delivering a red Pizza Hut box to a monk draped in red robes.

Red everywhere.

I asked Dolores what the meaning of red is in China. She said it scares away the evil spirits.

She said that evil spirits are left behind in the world when someone with unfulfilled desires passes away.




America clings to freedom like a wild frontier.

China is more like a garden. Each plant carefully chosen to support the flourishing of a single organic vision.

They have no qualms, then, in tearing down an old tree or a mismatched bush.

“We’re trying to build something,” they shout over the sound of the chainsaw. “It will be amazing.”

America wants to create nothing.

“Mind your own business,” she mutters as we cross paths.


My Old Home, by Lu Xun:

I lay awake, listening to the water lapping against the side of the boat. I knew I was taking my own course in life. And even though Runtu and I were now completely estranged, Hong’er and Suisheng were just like we used to be. I prayed they would turn out differently to us: I didn’t want them to drift like me, or to suffer numbly like Runtu — nor to anaesthetize themselves with self-indulgence, as others did… I wanted new, different lives for them, lives that we had not lived.

The instant my thoughts turned to hope, I grew fearful. When I saw Runtu take the incense-burner and candlesticks, I had secretly smiled at his worship of idols. But wasn’t my own weakness for hope an idol of my own making? His wishes were immediately material, while mine were distantly vague; that was the only difference between us.


May 10 - Back in Dali

So um, I’m living with a somatic healer that I met on tinder.

She’s staying in a big fancy house that a big fancy man has lent her; and she’s kindly extended the favour to me for a few days.

She’s out all day conducting some sort of spiritual body workshop, leaving me to fend for myself. (Fortunately, in Dali, this is not particularly difficult to do.) When she comes home in the evening, we sit (or lay) in the sparsely decorated living room and talk late into the night.

Sometimes I can live somewhere for a year without meeting anyone to connect with. And sometimes you meet a soul mate in less than an hour. 

An Qi is different than the others.

I talk to her about China. My ‘Made in China’ China.

She smiles.




I finally booked a ticket back to India. I leave in three days.

Mixed emotions.


May 11

I was invited to a shamanic performance last night. It took place in the cornfields just outside of Xizhou.

Even now, the morning after, writing about it, thinking about it, I tear up a little bit. Me — forever a little boy from Brooklyn — invited to join in. In a foreign land with foreign faces.

Perhaps not so foreign after all.

Before the start of the performance, as the gatherers sat nervously around a bonfire, watching a guitarist pluck at his strings, a man — perhaps around my age — walked over to offer me a glass of water. He didn’t say anything. He just handed it to me, with both hands, as one hands over a bomb or a love letter. He looked at me intently, bowed his head, and backed away.

I’ve never been so scared to drink a glass of water in my life.

Was it roofied? Why me? Why now?

What's going on??

But when a serious man wearing a changshan hands you a glass of water[?], you drink it.

I took a sip.

It was only later — hours later — that I learned that this man had come to transport us back into our dreamland and that this water was symbolic of the Ayahuasca of South America.

In choosing me, the only obvious foreigner in the group, I felt welcomed. Welcomed into the Land of his Chinese Dream.

I prefer not to talk about the ceremony itself. Some things should be felt, not discussed. But suffice it to say that by the end of it a young naked girl was left grazing grass on all fours while the shaman — now bare-chested — frolicked in the sand like some sort of demonic beast or spirit.

Oh well, I guess I did describe it after all. But that was only one part! I’ll leave the rest to the imagination.

I felt, crucially, that I was not watching a performance, but rather invited into a world of the artists’ creation. A carnal world. An honest world. A painful world. A sacred world.

I hate the word ‘sacred’, especially because I love it so much.

An evil world set between the starry night sky and the muddy rows of corn.

A world of beasts and spirits. Beyond time. Filled only with our own hunger and hope; lust and loss.

Made in China?

Fuck made in china. There ain’t no Marxism in the cornfield. No WeChat in the neat rows of plowed earth.

Can the Mind ever make peace with Matter? Can god descend onto earth? Will I ever eat in a Michelin star McDonalds?

China and America. The Greeks and the Hebrews. The holy bible and the communist manifesto.

Last night’s performance offered no solution; merely the hint of a dream.


May 12

I left out a detail from the performance the other day.

In some ways the most important detail.

Right in the middle of the psycho-spiritual tantric rhythm, as the performers were at the peak of their barbaric explorations, and the crowd hung breathlessly to their every move, perched at the edge of a moonlit clearing, a single villager appeared quietly from behind and shyly asked if we could please move our cars as they were blocking the narrow road they used to access their crops.

What did she think about these young hippies in the midst of their bizarre theatrics? Did she see the future? The past? A bunch of crazy kids with poor parenting? Orr, as she worried about transporting her harvest, did she think nothing at all?




I learned that, in Cantonese, the number 8 is the same word as ‘wealth’. Everywhere I’ve visiting on my trip, the wifi passwords were set to 88888888. 8 times 8. Wealth times wealth.

In the US, we use the password to protect our network. In China, they’ve put it to better use.




The other night my friend took me out for dinner. She ordered some wild mushrooms. Apparently the local delicacy in Yunnan consists of a strain of mushroom which, if not properly prepared, is poisonous. I thought of mentioning that we also have mushrooms in America; only that ours don’t include poison. But thought better of it.

They tasted fine. But then I laid in bed for hours certain that I was dying.

Strange delicacy, that one.

8 times 8. Red scares away evil spirits.


May 15

Back in Varanasi.

I’m compelled, sitting out on the balcony in the 110 degree Indian whirlwind, to reflect back on China; to compose some sort of tidy summary.

A conclusion.

But honestly, I haven’t concluded anything.

Like China, I’ve only just begun.

And besides, I can’t fucking write in this heat. So that’ll just have to do.


Dear 安琪,

I wanted to write you a poem.

A poem with flowers and the color purple and you laying in the grass beneath the rainbow on Erhai Lake.

I wanted to write you a poem

So you would know what you mean to me.


But i couldn't find the words.

No, the words couldn't find me.

(It's not my fault!)

So instead I'm writing you this letter.


I wanted to write you a poem

About the way your eyes grow bright when we speak

And the way you curl up on the couch and pout

In that beautiful unfriendly house

In a beautiful unfriendly world


Or the way you welcomed me in

To your home

To your life

To your life


Inviting me to fly with you to tropical Polynesia

And to assist you in gentrifying Peru.


I wanted to write you a poem

But instead I'm writing you this letter.


I hope we stay in touch.

I would be sad to encounter you

Only in my memory.

I hope we stay dear friends

I hope you continue to open

As I grow more close


Lucky for me, Lu Xun spoke firmly:

"Regrettably, a few of them want to write poetry; but it would never do to encourage that. Lending a hand with the modernization of the country is one thing; but writing poetry - quite inappropriate.”


I wanted to write you a poem.

But I suppose this will just have to do.

Until next time.

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