me in the piazza

I'm a writer, publishing both as SJ Rozan and, with Carlos Dews, as Sam Cabot. (I'm Sam, he's Cabot.) Here you can find links to my almost-daily blog posts, including the Saturday haiku I've been doing for years. BUT the blog itself has moved to my website. If you go on over there you can subscribe and you'll never miss a post. (Miss a post! A scary thought!) Also, I'll be teaching a writing workshop in Italy this summer -- come join us!
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Oh, wait, I mean Lanzhou. And I don't mean today's Pittsburgh, an attractive, artsy kind of place. I mean 50's Pittsburgh, steel mill Pittsburgh, yellow-sky Pittsburgh, stinky Pittsburgh. Lanzhou is the iron and steel capital of China. As our guide told us, "Very unfair to Lanzhou people." You betcha. Production is all, pollution be damned. Though I'm being unfair: when you see how thin the line is here between being middle-class, which in many places means having a flush toilet and being able to send your kid to school clean and fed, and sinking into the mass of 700 hundred million poor, you can understand the reluctance of the government and in fact most of the people to divert any resources into "greening" when production -- of steel, of cotton, of whatever environmentally destructive item -- is so desperately needed.

But the thick ocher air in Lanzhou, as in so many Chinese cities, is way on the other side of the line. And the water's not drinkable. Everybody coughs, every buys water in bottles, everyone gets used to the smell. I had a massive headache our second day.

So since we're not Lanzhou people and we have a choice, why are we here?

For one thing, I think it's worth seeing places like this, being reminded that this isn't Disneyland. This is an enormous country with enormous problems, as well as enormous advantages; these are real people leading real 21st-century lives, and as much as the art and the landscape, they're what I wanted to see.

Beyond that little bit of pontification, Lanzhou is a traditional stop on the Silk Road on the way to Xi'an. There's a spectacular set of Buddhist caves, to which we took a fast boat across a lake created behind a dam. That ride was about an hour; we passed the China national crew and kayak teams practicing for the Olympics. The caves were beautiful, painted and carved Buddhas and bodhisattvas (and if I spelled that wrong, keep it to yourself). But the highlight of that day was a 20-minute trip by Jeep along the bottom of a narrow canyon near the caves, to reach a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Once home to 2,000 monks, it now houses 8. Mostly the guides show small parties of adventurous westerners around -- not a lot of people come to the caves and almost none go on to the monastery -- and then you go home. But when we arrived, a short, smiling man came out to greet us. He welcomed us, invited us in, showed us around and explained everything in almost entirely incomprehensible English. He's studied the language but has no chance to speak it, so he really doesn't know what it sounds like. It turned out he was the abbott. He's the happiest man I've ever met. Cheerful, enthusiastic, jolly; he offered us tea, told us about the scultures and the other monks, showed us the prayer flags and incense, told us he loved us all. And we loved him. Now remember, this guy is a Tibetan Buddhist. (We're not all that far from Tibet and the area he was in changed hands back and forth over the years.) He lived through the Cultural Revolution, when religion was condemned, and the less recent and more recent trouble in Tibet. He's not allowed to even speak of the Dalai Lama -- someone in our group mentioned having seen the Dalai Lama speak recently, and he said he himself was a follower of the Panchen Lama. Well, sure; the current Panchen Lama was chosen and installed by Beijing. Personally I don't believe it for a minute, but that was what he said. With a smile, as he said everything. If religious faith could do this for everyone, I'd be signing on in a New York minute.

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