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Wang Ping


I woke up with a bad pain at the base of my skull. Altitude sickness? Usually one would get it during the first week, but I’d been in Lhasa for two and a half weeks, and I was going home tomorrow, taking the train to Shanghai to catch my flight back to St. Paul. I tapped needles into my temples, my neck, my chest and ankles to stop the pulsing ache, swallowed some a double dosage of the anti-altitude sickness pills, stretched, meditated, prayed, but the pain wouldn’t go away. Perhaps some pumpkin rice porridge would help? I had it in a small breakfast place run by Sichuanese on the suburb of Lhasa, and it was the best gruel I’d ever had.

I got up and rang the bell at the front counter. The hotel manager staggered out to open the door padlocked from inside. I asked her where I could find pumpkin porridge for breakfast. She smiled sleepily, said we were in the Muslim and Tibetan quarter, and nothing would be open so early, and they wouldn’t have the porridge I wanted anyway. But if I walked a few alleys this and that way, I should be able to find the street with Chinese restaurants, which might have it. She wished me good luck, locked the gate behind me, and went back to sleep.

After needling through narrow lanes reeked with urine and shadows of camouflaged soldiers, I found myself in a square with a solemn mob of men. Everyone wore black: black jacket, black pants, black beards, and black scales in their hands. The only color is the yellow straw on their heads and the pink plastic bags in their hands. Nobody was talking and there was no stand to display the commodity, yet I knew they were trading. The market hummed with their heavy breathing. I squeezed through the crowd, shouting “Excuse me, Excuse me,” just to break this terrifying silence that was not really a silence, and to give myself some courage to walk through this black ocean of men. Nobody seemed to hear or see me. Their eyes were locked on their partners, hands in each other’s plastic bag, rubbing and weighing the content inside. They seemed to be whispering to each other’s ears, but when I looked closer, I saw that they were holding each other’s hands in the sleeves, their fingers moving swiftly under the fabric. They were literally making deals in their sleeves, their heads shaking or nodding as they “talked.” Far away over the ocean of straw hats, a man took something out of his pink plastic bag and weighed it on a scale. I couldn’t tell what it was, but by the delicate manner that those rough looking men handled their goods, it must be precious. It also seemed that every man on this silent market was dealing the same commodity.

I had my Canon with me, a new one I had purchased for this trip, but I didn’t dare raise it. This dark, silent crowd held a mysterious power over me, more so than those soldiers with machine guns and grenades, who stopped me several times a day checking my camera and telling me to erase the content. I had had immense fun playing hide-and-seek with them. But not with this crowd. No. My “street smartness” wouldn’t work here. Their silence was squashing me like a bug. I shouted and pushed and kicked, but I could be a ghost, my presence carrying no voice, no weight, and no substance. I started sweating profusely. The morning sun stabbed my eyes like thousands of needles. I was going to be dissolved like a vampire in the black ocean.

Finally I stumbled through the crowd and turned into an alley. Everything was closed except for one little store with a red sign in Arab and Chinese: Heritage Chongcao Herb. I ran in. The place was tiny, enough to hold only two small tables against each side of the wall, in between, a giant refrigerator. Each table had four small folding chairs, and two chopstick holders.

A woman clad in a black lace headdress came out. “Hello, some breakfast?”

I pointed to the sign. “Chongcao herb for breakfast?”

She smiled, a dimple on her slightly puffy cheek, and I wanted to kick myself for being such a smartass.

“Oh, that, it was a chongcao store a month ago. I just rented this place and haven’t had a chance to take it down yet. Besides, I need a name to replace it. Please take a seat.”

“Do you have pumpkin porridge?”

I wanted to kick myself again. Of course she didn’t. It was a specialty for Chinese breakfast, and she looked so obviously Muslin.

She smiled. “No, but I have noodles and buns and dumplings. Would you like to sit down and have some tea?”

The table was small but clean, and her smile soothing like her voice. I sat down with my back to the street, which I disliked under the normal situation. But I’d dislike even more to sit with my back to the hostess.

“I’ll try a bun and a bowl of hot and sour noodles. Oh, no hot in the soup, please.”

“Just sour, then?” she asked and poured me a cup of tea. The green tea was cheap stuff, but it was hot and her manner so gentle. She turned and opened the giant steamer next to the refrigerator.
“Potato filling or beef with garlic chives?”


She took out a fluffy white bun and placed it in front of me, then took out a giant bloody chunk of meat from the freezer. It was a whole hind leg of a cow, almost as tall as the owner, hoof and hair still attached at the end.

“What’s that for?” I pointed to the leg.

“For your soup.” She walked into her kitchen, cradling the meat in her arms.

I bit into the bun. It was juicy and quite tasty. There were lots of chives, for sure, mixed with shredded carrots. I couldn’t find any meat. Was she using the whole leg to make soup?

“I thought it was beef bun,” I said through the window that opened into the kitchen. I could only see her back and the cleaver up and down as she chopped the frozen meat.

She poked her face through the window, face flushing with beads of sweat. “I know,” she smiled apologetically. “The meat price went up like crazy, and I can’t raise the bun price, or nobody would buy it. So I just put less ground meat and a bit more meat sauce in it. I’ll chop more beef for your soup.”

“It’s ok, really. I don’t like meat that much anyway. The bun is delicious. Can I have another, please?”

She gave me the second bun, and filled up my tea before returning to her kitchen. The eatery is tiny, and the kitchen, separate from the dining area with a window and thin wall, is even smaller. She moved gracefully in her confined space as she chopped meat, made buns, put them in the steamer, and cooked my noodles all at once. It was seven o’clock in the morning, and she looked tired.

“What’s your name?”

She stopped chopping, bending her head as if my question weighed heavier than the cow leg. Then she picked it up and carried it back to the refrigerator. She closed the door, picked up the thermos to fill up my cup.

“You know, you are the first customer who asked my name. Nobody has called me by my name for so long.”

I laughed. “How do they call you then? Can’t shout ‘wei’ to you all the time. What does your husband call you?


We laughed together, then a brief silence before she went back chopping.

“Does he help you in the morning?” I asked as I watched two construction workers rushing towards the eatery, carrying their tin lunch boxes.

“Oh, he’s busy at the market.” She dropped some beef in the wok and sautéed. The clanking drowned her voice.

What market? I wanted to ask, and then it dawned on me that it must be the silent one I had just crawled through.

“What are they selling there?” I asked, but the workers had burst in.

“Sixteen buns, laobanniang, half potatoes and half chives, right away, and lots of hot sauce, quickly, quickly. We’re late for work.”

Laobanniang—female boss—that was what her clients called her. I ate my second bun while watching her pour tea, bring out two dishes of red chili sauce, and pile two giant plates with buns. Her pale face was now red with sweat, and I wondered if she would ever take off her headscarf to cool off under any circumstance. Would she let me help? Was I clean enough to help? What was her husband doing at that market? He should be here, helping his wife chop and sauté, or at least bring food to the customers…

The workers gobbled down half of their buns and packed the rest in their lunch boxes. The older man pulled out a twenty-yuan bill and slammed it down on the table. “Change, laobanniang.”

She rushed over with two coins. “Thank you, Big Uncle. Please come back tomorrow.”

“We would if you put a little more meat in the buns, laobanniang. Still, how did you make your buns as juicy as these?” He leered and brushed his hand across her full bosoms. “Are these your secret ingredients?”

She dodged. “Please walk slowly, Big Uncle.” Her smile vanished as soon as they stepped out of the eatery. After placing the bill in her waist pouch, she started cleaning the table. She moved slowly, as if that business transaction had depleted her. So her buns cost one yuan each, less than the sum of a nickel and dime. If I dropped the coins on the floor, my sons wouldn’t even bother to pick them up. Yet she had to get up before dawn to knead and rise the dough, to chop the vegetables, to roll out the skin, to make the bun one by one by hundreds, to steam them, and hopefully to sell them all. How many thousands of buns did she have to sell to make some profit?

“Can I have another bun?”

I couldn’t call her boss. It sounded almost like mocking. She looked more like a slave to this place.

“The noodle soup is almost ready.”

“Oh, but your bun tastes so good.”

She smiled, a genuine one because she knew I meant it. She opened the steamer and picked the puffiest bun. “So glad you like it. I use my mother’s secret recipe.”

“What is it?”

Her eyes twinkled. “That’s a secret. It’s what keeps my business going. You see this location—deep in the alley, at the end of the market. Tourists won’t find it very often, only those chongcao dealers who get hungry, or those who heard of my buns by word of mouth. If my rivals steal my recipe, I’d be out of business within a week.”

I nodded. So that was what her husband was doing: trading chongcao, the worm that was eaten alive by fungus and turned into a root through the winter in the soil. Chinese believed this fungus filled worm could enhance their lung capacity and virile power. The price reached 60 thousand yuan a kilogram around the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The herb was found in Sichuan, Yunnan, and Qinghai-Tibet plateau, but chongcao from Tibet was the most prized because of its size. Every early spring, the highland would be crowded with the Tibetans who owned the land, or by those who paid high prices to get the permit to search for the herb. They formed a tight line and got down on their knees to comb through every blade of grass, and behind them were the Muslin traders who would buy the herb on the spot. They were there because the worms had become more and more difficult to find, and their presence at the site would guarantee that they’d get the precious herb, and most importantly, the genuine one. Because of the price and scarcity, the market was flooded with fake chongcao. I had been warned over and over again that I must not, under any circumstance, buy anything in Tibet, especially stones and herbs, and among the herbs, especially chongcao. “99.99% of the goods are fake,” said my friend.

“Is your husband the first, second or third-hand dealer?” I asked. The word chongcao brought back the long conversations I had had with Mr. Ma on the train from Xining to Lhasa.

Mr. Ma was a heavy smoker. So we chatted standing between the carriages where smoking was allowed. He was in his late thirties, tall, broad and handsome like a wild horse. For ten years, he had been a first-hand dealer of chongcao. “We are quite like the American cow boys,” he said proudly, “young and strong and not afraid of fighting or dying. We travel deep into the Qiangtang Highland above five thousand meters, where the air is thin and the best chongcao grows. We follow the nomads and collect the herbs they dig: longdan cao, hongjingtian, tianma, but chongcao is the most prized. We pay twenty to forty yuan each, depending on the size and condition of the plant. We sell the fresh ones right away to the local collectors for forty to eighty yuan each. The rest are dried and guarded with greatest care till we reach Lhasa or Xining, where the herb could be sold for a tripled price to the storeowners--the second hand dealers, who have street-front stores with lots of cash. They are the fat cats that control the chongcao market. The third-hand dealers are individuals who hang out on street corners, markets, restaurants, selling to tourists and other third-hand dealers. Their goods are scraps, small, broken and glued together, and often fake. I know you want to know why they’d sell the fakes among themselves,” Mr. Ma threw his cigarette butt into the bucket that collects water from the hot water tap, and lit another one. “Something for them to do, I guess. The third-hand dealers are the weak, the sick, and the old, or the young who are learning how to deal. Occasionally, they’d hook some suckers from Shanghai, Beijing, or America. Ha! I go there sometimes, just to hang out, greet old friends. It relaxes me. It takes a lot to be on the frontier. Every May, we rent a truck with a group of men and travel there. The roads are crowded with the nomads and their caravans. Often the whole families come to hunt chongcao. Some nomads bring their cattle. We just follow them, as if they were yaks and sheep. But sometimes when I’m too cold to sleep at night, I have this funny feeling that perhaps we are all nothing but sheep, shepherded by the frivolous desire of the invisible rich. But of course I can’t tell anyone about this, or they’d think I’m insane. The trip lasts about three months, until the herb becomes too old to have any value, and everyone’s nerve is so tight that they’re ready to kill whoever comes across their path. We lose so much weight when we come home that our wives and children would call us ghosts. Sometimes, not all of us could come home alive. But we see things that most people would never see in their entire life. The land is so high you can almost touch the sky. The air is so clean that you can breathe free, really free. And there are beasts everywhere: donkeys, gazelles, horses, yaks, all wild and beautiful, not like the tamed ones at all.”

He sucked his smoke to the end of the butt, and exhaled, his chest heaving. “I can’t wait to get home and get on the road. Everything is ready, the truck, the men, the tents, and food.” He looked at me through his ring of smoke. “You’re welcome to come along if you think you can handle it. I know you can’t stay that long, but you can always hop on the train if you want to go home.”

I was dumfounded by such a gift. What had I done to earn such trust? True, he wanted me to help her daughter to get into Macalester College. She was a junior in her middle school, a very smart girl, and an all-A student. No girl in his clan had graduated from middle school. But he had more ambition for her: go to America for college.

“Think about it and let me know. My truck leaves the day after we arrive in Lhasa. Here’s my cell phone number. Call me when you decide to go.”

I had told my friend right away about the opportunity when he met me at the train station. “Are you crazy? You’ll never come back alive if you go. The plateau will tear you up like a blade of grass, and those men. Do you know what they carry with them on the trip? Rifles, guns, grenades. Why? There are only so many chongcao from the land, and there are hundreds of thousands of people who want it. The result: constant fighting and blood shedding. People die there all the time.”

“My husband’s health doesn’t allow him to travel as a first-hand dealer.” The restaurant owner’s voice was faintly apologetic and bitter. She had placed a bowl of soup in front of me. “Your sour-hot noodles. No hot in it.” She filled up my teacup for the fourth time. The tea was now as bland as water. “Besides, we don’t have that kind of money to rent truck or own a store front.”

“You have this store,” I gestured at her store, then felt bad when I saw her face. “Sorry. It’s a bad joke. How much do you pay for this place?”

“Too much. The owner wanted three thousand yuan a month. We argued that it’s a bad location for business. At least five of them have gone south before us. He argued that it may not be the best location for chongcao business, but may still work as an eatery, especially considering I’d be the only one here. The store next door sells the traditional bread only. If only a third of the chongcao dealers from the market come to eat here, I’d be rich quickly. If we don’t want it, there’ll be plenty of other Muslins who would grab it. We begged and haggled, and finally my son-in-law came over and settled with him for two thousand.”

I shivered as I tried to calculate how many thousands of buns she would have to sell to earn the rent. I took a sip of the soup, but I lost appetite. I felt a lump in my throat. Her husband should be here helping her.

“How much can your husband bring home from that market?”

She was silent for a while. “We’re new here. Just moved from Lingzhi a month and a half ago. It takes a while to establish business, any business.”

“Why did you leave home to come here?”

“Linzhi isn’t our home. We bought a grocery store from a relative. But business was terrible. Not enough Muslins there.”

“Where’s your home?”

“Oh, we’re from a small village in Ningxia Province.”

“Why did you leave Ningxia?

She gave me a sad look. “Home is a desert now. No water. The trees are cut. The river dried. Animals died. Fields cracked. Nothing grows. Sand eats up everything. Even our house. We left after my son was born. I told my husband that our son should have a good education, perhaps go to college. So we went to Lanzhou, then Xining, then Tibet. We’ve been wandering for three years, like nomads, except we have no sheep or yaks, just ourselves. I do hope we can settle down here in Lhasa. My daughter lives here, and her husband’s family is well connected.”

“Can she help you in the morning?”

“She has her own chores to do. Besides, she’s still recovering from a miscarriage,” she said slowly, looking at the dough and a giant tub of chive filling. “She may come later to help out. She’s a good girl.”

“How many children do you have?”

“Two, my daughter and my son. I lost quite a few in between.”

“What about your husband? He probably can make more selling buns than selling worms.”

She walked into the kitchen, then looked at me through the metal window that became part of her black velvet scarf.

“It’s not about how much he can make over there. He needs to be in his world. It makes him feel at home. It gives him hope.”

What about you? I wanted to ask, but knew better to remain silent. Who gave you hope? Who makes you feel home?

Six workers came in for buns. The place was getting too crowded. I stood up and gestured for my bill. “Thirteen yuan, please,” she said, looking at my untouched beef soup sadly. I told her I loved the soup, but I ate too many of her delicious buns. And I’d for sure come back for more, perhaps for lunch. I left quickly. She chased after me with the change. I waved my hand, but she caught up with me to put them in my palms.

“Just come back to see us,” she said and ran back to her store for her clients.

I stood in the alley. To my left was the market. I could feel the heavy vibrations of the silent dealings. To my right was an empty alley. I walked into it. The sun was high up in the sky, but the alley was still in the deep shadow. A few women with black headscarves were opening the front metal doors, revealing their merchandise: shoes, bags, belts, socks, shirts, pants, skirts, pots, brooms, dustpans. They all looked slightly puffy and tired.

“Where does this road lead to?” I asked a woman with patches of caked powder on her face.

“Jokhang Monastery,” she said, turning away to hang a black shirt with an Adidas check on the right chest. It was priced twenty-five yuan. A fake that looked real. I could have an Adidas shirt for $4. Who would know?

The alley actually led me to my favorite teahouse Makye Ame. It was said that the great poet Sixth Dalai Lama frequented here in search of a beautiful girl, whom he believed to be a Goddess Tara. I came here everyday because of the location—the center of Barkhor Street, the center of Lhasa, and its third-floor where I could see the entire square.

I ordered a thermos of yak butter tea and picked a place where I could see the crowd moving clockwise. Everything remained the same, the throbbing crowd, the waiters, the music, and the smell. The only differences were the patrolling soldiers in camouflage and secret police in black uniforms under the Coca-Cola Umbrellas. Their number seemed to exceed the throngs of the pilgrims and tourists. I pulled my camera away from the street. Two soldiers on the rooftop next to me were looking in my direction through their telescopes, their machine guns glistening like knives in the sun. No need to bring trouble to the restaurant. I pointed my camera to the mountains far away. The snow and glaciers were gone. The peaks looked bare and vulnerable. The tea came. I poured a cup for myself. It looked weak, and didn’t have the thick, strong flavor that I loved, the flavor churned only from yak milk. As my friend said, real yak butter could be found only in monasteries or in nomads’ tents nowadays.

I took out my notebook and wrote down the date: May 10, Makye Ame. I wanted to write about the eatery, but my mind was a junkyard full of scraps. The three buns sat heavily in my stomach. The owner’s face floated in front of me. I wanted to help her, but how? I didn’t even know her name.

I got up. The waiter rushed over. “No lunch here today?”

“I promised someone to have lunch at her place.”

“Not thirsty?” He picked up the full pot.

“No. Thanks, though. It was delicious.”

I joined the clockwise flow. With so many police and soldiers, even the peddlers from the stands on the Barkhor seemed much subdued. They used to surround me and thrust their stones, knives and scarves into my face, shouting cheap, cheap, buy, buy. Now they just sat behind their goods, watching through a curtain of pearl necklaces that hung over their stands. Some of the owners seemed to have given up. They gathered together and played cards. Or perhaps they were fake business owners who didn’t have to sell? My friend had warned me to be careful with my words on the streets, especially on Barkhor. Half of the business owners were actually spies.

Outside Jokhang, the sun was blinding. The gate was crowded with prostrating Tibetans and sitting tourists. Two guards in full armor guarded the gate, and at least five troupes of soldiers in yellow and green camouflage threading through the crowd like pythons. Camouflage was definitely the fashion of Lhasa: not only soldiers, but also gardeners, cleaners, and lots of young men wore them. It even entered the fashion of children and teenage girls.

I approached a stand that sold prayer flags and incense. The owner was shouting his bet to his card partners. When I asked how much the flags cost, he barked out a price and went back to his gambling. I went to a woman with Sichuan accent and bought five prayer flags and two bags of peace knots. I had promised my Buddhist friends at the Twin Cities that I’d bring back something from the monasteries in Tibet. I asked my Lhasa friend what I should bring back as gifts. He said nothing was cheap here anymore. A decent tangka would cost at least one hundred thousand yuan. He looked at my face and laughed. Yeah, a masterpiece would start at a million. So that was out. Jewelry? Everything was fake. You couldn’t believe anything they said except for one truth: nothing was real. Perhaps some prayer flags for your American Buddhist friends? And got them blessed in Jokhang? There was a lama there under the Buddha’s feet. Just donate something, and he’d bless your presents.

I went to the ticket window and paid eighty-five yuan for the entrance fee. The monastery must do extremely well since it received thousands of visitors every day. I followed the crowd into the dark temple. In the main hall, rows of lamas in red robes chanted in unison, each with a bowl of yak butter tea and bills of twenty, five and one-yuan notes piled in their laps. In this temple and every other temple, money seemed to float everywhere: in donation boxes, under Buddha’s feet, in every crack and corner… The whole place seemed to be floating in the sea of money. Did Buddha want all of this? I gazed up at the gilded statue studded with precious stones. The line to him was incredibly long. Everyone wanted to touch his foot to be rich and happy. China was filthy rich now. Were people happier? If so, why did the line seem endless? Two lamas behind the desk took in the donations and wrote down the donors’ names. A new lama came to help as the line longer and thicker. People before me and behind me, mostly Hans, waved wads of one hundred yuan note. I was planning to donate fifteen yuan, the change I got from buying the ticket. Now I wondered if it might be too little. But my friend told me it didn’t matter how much I gave, as long as my motivation was pure. My motivation was to bring some blessed items to my Buddhist friends in Minnesota. Was it pure enough? Now I was thinking perhaps I should bring something to the eatery owner. Perhaps a peace knot? Would she accept it? Would it be offensive to her? She was a Muslin, after all. The lamas chanted in a low voice, intermingled with a high pitched singing. A young lama, no more than twelve years old, chanting at the top of his lungs, swaying and laughing, his lap also brimming with paper bills.

I finally got to the lama and handed him a one hundred yuan bill. This was all I could give. China was getting expensive, and so was Tibet. The ticket alone from Minneapolis to Shanghai was $2700, and the hotel would have cost me two thousand yuan a night if my friend had not helped me to get a discount rate. The lama took the money and waved me to the Buddha without looking up. What about writing down the names of my friends, and the woman from the eatery? I was about to ask when I saw the amount of the money recorded in the book: five thousand yuan: Mr. Wang Kai; Ten thousand yuan: Mrs. Li Feng; one-million yuan: anonymous…

Only the rich got their names written in the book. Capitalism had reached Tibet.

I walked away and brushed my prayer flags and peace knots against the Buddha’s foot. May Buddha bring peace and happiness to my friends. May he bring some luck to the Muslin woman at the eatery. May she get some help making the buns. May she sell all her of buns everyday. Around me, people kissed the Buddha’s feet and prayed piously, the shine from their diamond rings, earrings and jade bracelets mingled with the Buddha’s jewelry. How much richer did they want to be? Suddenly I felt suffocated by the smoke from the lamps and incense. I walked out into the sun again.

It was 11:00, too early to go back to the eatery. A taxi stopped next to me. The driver didn’t say a word or looked at me, just sitting behind his wheel smoking. I got in and opened the window as wide as possible. Every taxi driver in Lhasa seemed to chain-smoke. We sat silently until he tossed his butt out of the window.


I looked at the red thread in his braid coiling around his head. A Kangba Tibetan. I looked down. No Kangba knife around his waist. This was something new. Normally Kangba Tibetan men would not leave their house without their knives decorated with precious stones and silver. My friend told me that knife had been banned since the 2008 uprising.

“Do you know a temple that didn’t require money to enter?”

He smiled and lit a new cigarette. “There’s no such a place in Lhasa anymore. But I can take you to a temple that has the lowest fee.”

“Let’s go then.”

The streets were packed with people: soldiers, tourists, and pilgrims. The air was thick with the exhaust from taxies, army vehicles and trucks loaded with construction materials.

“How’s business?”

“Ok. Tourists went to Shanghai Expo this year.”

“How long have you been a taxi driver?”

“Two years. “

“You like it?”

“No. But I don’t have a choice. Someone from Beijing bought my land, in fact bought the whole mountain where my village used to be. They wanted the mineral underneath. Said to be rich in copper and gold and other stuff. Said it was backed by the government and Australian mining companies. Who knows? They came and blasted the tops off the mountains. Dust everywhere, water poisoned, yaks died from drinking the water. They paid me some money. And I used it to buy this car. I don’t have skills other than riding horses and farming. But we have to eat. And I want my son to get some education. Perhaps he could have his own business like those Sichuan people.” He pointed to the stores and restaurants along the street.

“Why didn’t you open a business yourself?”

He laughed. “I don’t know how to read or write Chinese. How can I compete with them? They have their tightly knit networks, those Sichuan people, the biggest population in the city, then people from Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hunan, Shandong…they swarmed here with one goal: make money. And they have a few thousand years of experience in their blood. They laugh at us, say we nomads only know things by piles, like yak dung piles, black tea piles… It’s true that until recent years, we had been trading goods by sheep or yak. The Muslins were our middlemen. They brought us salt, sugar, tea, clothes, and took our animals. We didn’t know much about money, cash or checks, let alone credit. You Chinese have money running in your blood, and ours has only yak, horse, sky, and Buddha.”

We were out of the city center now. The streets were new and empty. No tall government or commercial buildings on either side. Only shabby small businesses that sold Sichuan food, bike parts, and used cell phones. He stopped next to a bus stop, in front of a small market.

“Here it is.”

The market sold dried junipers, incense, bottles of white spirit, and turnips. All the buyers and sellers were local Tibetans. I smiled as I saw the goods were divided in piles and bundles. No tourists. No patrolling soldiers. Only one guard in black uniform sat at the gate chatting with a turnip seller. I looked into the smoky yard and saw a small monastery. It had a gilded rooftop, but dimmed by years of smoke and dust, and beams seemed to need lots of repair. Still, it was busy, and its visitors all Tibetans with incense and bottles of liquor. What was that for? I’d seen people bring in thermoses of yak butter to fill up the lamps.

“What temple is this?”

“Zhaji. You owe me ten yuan.”

I handed him the bill, thanked him and got out. A bus stopped by and unloaded a crowd of women with children. I followed them in, past the guard who was still chatting with the young woman, past the closed window that had a sign of Ticket: 15 Yuan. I looked back to make sure that nobody was chasing after me. Amazing. This was the first place in Lhasa that I had entered for free.

There was a long line at the door. I joined in and noticed immediately the line didn’t lead to the main statue in the hall, but to a small sanctuary on the left. There was something in there, but the crowd and a gigantic trough in the front covered it. Two monks took the bottles from the pilgrims’ hands, opened them, and poured the liquid into the trough. They worked fast, never stopping to look up and wipe the sweat from their faces. Still, they couldn’t keep up with the bottles raised above the pilgrims’ heads. A third monk ran over to help. The whole temple reeked with alcohol.

What was going on here? Shouldn’t a monastery be lit by candles and yak butter lamps? I looked around, and saw the lamps. From the waxy formations around the edges of the bowls, I could tell they were fueled by butter, not the 65-degree white spirit. Two rows of monks chanted on mats, some were eating balls of barley flour mixed with tea.

Interesting! I raised my camera and looked around for signs that forbade photography. Nope. The only sign I saw, and immediately I found it everywhere else, was the one with a police warning people about pocket-lifters. Strange. The visitors here seemed poor. And the money in their hands were one or fifty Jiao bills, one tenth or fiftieth of a yuan, occasionally one or five yuan bills. No one had the pink one-hundred-yuan bill like those in Jokhang Monastery. I looked again to make sure there was no guard. I took one shot at the liquor pouring monks, then the chanting monks. Nobody seemed to care.

I asked a young woman what the liquor was for. She told me that it was for Zhaji, a goddess for women who wanted children, who wanted their husbands to stop beating and cheating on them, and helped their children get into college and get a job.

“What about them? What do they want?” I pointed at the men.

“She’s also a goddess of fortune. She helps them get rich.”

“Is that why she drinks so much?”

She laughed. “There is a story behind it. No, not a good time to tell it now. But she is good at helping people, especially if she likes the bottle she’s given.”

I immediately thought about the Muslim woman from the eatery.

“Could you hold the spot for me please? I need to get something. Will be back in a minute.”

She nodded approvingly, knowing what I was trying to get. I ran outside. There was a stand in the atrium. Two monks were selling bottles. There were two brands, one for 4 yuan, and the other for 8 yuan. They looked exactly the same, both clear, both with a red label. The only difference was the price.

“This one please,” I pointed to the 8-yuan bottle. Hopefully the goddess could tell the difference.

I ran back. The woman was handing her bottle to the monk at the trough. I got there just in time. The other monk took mine and poured it all into the pool of white spirit, where the cheap and expensive liquors were all mixed together. The air was thick with ethanol.

I followed the crowd into the little sanctuary and saw Goddess Zhaji. She looked entirely different from all the deities I’d seen. A mop of black hair tangled around her shoulders and chest, a red tongue stuck out of her mouth, and her eyes opened wide and wrathfully. She looked more like a drunken ghost than a goddess. The woman I talked to was kissing Zhaji’s foot and touching it with her white Hada while praying fast in Tibetan. Around me, everyone was doing the same. I took out my bag of present that contained the peace knot and prayer flags and brushed them against her feet, pressed my hands in front of my chest and prayed for the Muslin woman and her business, for my children to grow up healthy and happy and get into college that may lead them to a good job, for the oil spill in the gulf to stop soon, for my friends, and my own peace of mind. When I was done, I felt dizzy, as if I was drunk from breathing the liquored air. I looked up. The goddess seemed less angry. Perhaps she liked my bottle?

The young woman had gone. I went into the main hall to look for her. I wanted to hear Zhaji’s drinking story, but she had just vanished. I looked up at the tall deity here, a regular one just like all the Buddha statues I’d seen, tall, big, and gilded, covered with precious stones and money, but he didn’t send shivers down the spine like Zhaji. I took a shot of the monks seated in front of the Buddha, wondering why I didn’t photograph Goddess Zhaji, when suddenly someone grabbed my arms. He was strong, almost lifting me off ground as he pushed me to the door. When he put me down outside the temple, I turned and saw a stout monk in his forties, his tan bare arm thicker than my thigh, his eyes bulging and angry like the Goddess Zhaji. Before I could say a word, he pointed at my camera, and said something in Tibetan. I couldn’t understand a word, but I knew he was mad at me for taking photos.

“There is no sign here that says I can’t photograph,” I said.

He just glared at me, legs apart in the warrior’s stance.

“I can pay.” I took out my wallet, trying to remember how much a monastery would usually charge to take photos. 25 yuan? 30 yuan?

“Out!” he shouted in English, pointing to the gate, his eyes looked more wrathful than the goddess’, and his face was redder than that of the guardian deity overlooking the threshold of the monastery. In fact, his whole body and spirit resembled the ferocious guardian deity on the wall behind him.

Did I hear him speak English? Perhaps I heard it wrong? His anger, however, earned my respect for him. Here was someone who couldn’t be bought with money. I bowed and apologized in English. “I’m truly sorry. Please forgive my ill manner.”

His face softened. “Where from?”

“America.” Ah, he did speak some English.

He nodded, a tiny spark in his eyes. “New York?”

I smiled. “I used to live there, 12 years. Now I live in St. Paul, Minnesota, 10 years.” I spoke very slowly, using my fingers to illustrate the numbers, but he still looked puzzled, and his eyes wandered away to the monks folding sutras in yellow silk at a table nearby. I whipped out my blackberry and typed my address in St. Paul into the Google map.

“Look, here’s where I live, on the Mississippi, the biggest river in America. My house is across this bend, the Fort Snelling, where two great rivers meet, the Mississippi and Minnesota.” I said, confident that he would understand as I traced the rivers, streets and my house with my finger. For the first time I was grateful to my Blackberry Storm. All the troubles I had gone through with my phone had become worthwhile. Other monks gathered around us, smiling and laughing.

He looked into my Blackberry and murmured, “Mississippi, Minnesota,” saying each syllable slowly as if he were chewing the sounds. Suddenly he pointed to a little dot under the bend. “Indian?”

I was shocked. His finger was right on the Pike Island, a small island created by the silt from the Mississippi and Minnesota. This place used to be, still was, sacred to the Sioux Indians and many other tribes, regarded as the origin of the world, and Garden of Eden. In 1805, the US government wanted to build a fort in this area to protect the fur trade, and bought 100,000 acres around the area. They agreed to pay $200,000 for the land, yet only paid $2,000 when Fort Snelling was built. The Indians starved from the loss of their hunting and gather land, and from the government’s failure to send them food or other provisions according to the treaties. In 1862, they rebelled, led by the Little Crow. The Indians lost. 1,600 of men, women and children were held as prisoners on the Pike Island. Through the winter, hundreds of them were sick and frozen to death. The rest were exiled to Crow Creek in South Dakota, where many more died from the worst drought in Dakota history. After the war, no Sioux was allowed to live in Minnesota.

But how could I explain it all to him in English, or any other language?

I touched the island with my fingertip. “It’s a place full of dreams, tears, and blood,” I said slowly, first in Chinese, then in English.

He listened with eyes closed, his lips trembling as if he were praying. A drop of tear hung on each of his cheek. I knew I didn’t need to say more. He got it all, the sorrow of that place, of any place. Pain may not be well expressed in words, but it definitely could be felt across the space, time, and culture, between the bodies that knew the taste of sorrow and suffering.

He looked at me now, his eyes as clear as the blue sky. “Thank you for sharing the story.”

I bowed. “Would you tell me the story of Zhaji? Why does she like to drink?”

He laughed out loud, and I started laughing too, though I had no idea why I was laughing. It just felt good.

“Zhaji is from China,” he finally said, wiping tears with his sleeved arm. She ran away from home with her lover, who sold her to a brothel in a gamble game. She wanted to go home, but her parents disowned her out of shame. She drank herself to a stupor and drowned. Her homeless soul wandered along the rivers in extreme pain. A lama took pity on her and brought her to Tibet and built a sanctuary in Lhasa. She has become a deity for women since then, a pretty good one, depends on her mood and how much she drinks. After all these years, she still prefers white spirit than yak butter. By the way, would you like some tea?”

“Yes! I love yak butter tea.”

He looked pleased, and gestured to a young monk to pour me a full cup of tea. It looked real, yellow cream floating on the top like clouds. It tasted real, too, salty and pungent and rich. The dull pain in my head went away.

“Thank you for the tea.”

“Thank you! You’re the first Chinese I know who likes our tea.”

Two monks pushed the full trough out of the temple. Another two monks brought out the buckets full of empty bottles. The four of them started refilling the bottles with the alcohol in the trough.

“Recycling?” I pointed to the scene.

My monk friend sipped the tea and didn’t answer. “Why two prices?” I pointed to the liquor stand.

“Same difference,” he said slowly. Seeing the confusion on my face, he added, “Chinese, Tibetans, Indians, Americans, all same people, same difference. Joy, pain, kindness, cruelty, life, death, all same difference. 4 yuan or 8 yuan, you give what you want, what you can. Money is not a bridge to the heart of the goddess. It’s the intention that counts in the end. Same difference.”

We sat in silence, drinking tea. No more word came to us. No need. Thick smokes wrapped the temple like clouds. Bells and chanting floated from the dark interior of the temple. Posters of thief warning covered each column and window. The monks brought the refilled bottles to the stand, which were quickly grabbed by the waiting worshipers. 4 yuan or 8 yuan, same difference. I didn’t have a blessed scarf for my Muslim friend. I only had my thoughts and wishes. Same difference.

I finished my tea and stood up. “Thank you so much, Master,” I bowed.

“So long and take care,” he said in English.

I walked into the sun again. My eyes welcomed the bright light. The yak butter tea gave me strength to endure the extra strong light and high altitude. It should be around 1:00 pm. Time to go to the Chongcao eatery. I looked for a taxi. There was none. Outside the gate was the bus stop, but I didn’t know where it would go. Should I just take it? Didn’t they say that all the roads in Lhasa led to Patola Palace and Barkhor?

“Just cross the street and you can get a taxi from the Minzu Hotel. It’s a five star hotel.” The guard said. The turnip woman was still there, leaning against the gate next to the guard. She hadn’t sold a single bundle of turnips, and yet she looked as content as a clam in her rags. I felt a pang of envy. One could read ten thousand books and still couldn’t reach that level of enlightenment.

The taxi took me to the chongcao square. “No, not here.” I said. “Can we go to the eatery from a back alley?”

“This is the only way by car. And I can’t go in any more. You have to walk,” he said and sped off quickly after he took my money. I looked. No more men in black suits and straw hats. The chongcao market was over, now the square abuzz with the noises from selling vegetables, meat, shoes, socks, pots and pans. There were several stands that sold noodles. Watching people eating made me hungry. I dodged children running around through the stands and patrolling armies as their mothers bargained prices with the sellers. I walked and smelled the sweetness of melons, apples, pears, watermelons, tomatoes…the fruits that used to be brought in by planes but were now grown by Sichuan people in the green houses rented from Tibetans. Most of the peddlers were Muslims. The atmosphere was so cheerful that everyone had a smile on his or her face, including myself. Even the soldiers seemed less threatening.

The eatery was empty except for a young a girl trying to persuade a boy to eat beef from a bowl of noodles. It looked like the bowl I had left behind this morning. She looked up and smiled.

“Welcome. Please sit down and I’ll bring you tea. What would you like for lunch?”

She smiled exactly like the owner, and looked like hers too. Both had fair, smooth complexion. But she couldn’t be her daughter. The owner had told me her daughter had been married for three years and the girl looked only 13 years old. The boy looked a bit small for a four-year-old, but he must be her son. Who was this young girl then? His babysitter? Where was the owner?

“Welcome back,” she walked out from the kitchen, eyes sparkling from joy. “Did you have a good morning looking around? You must be hungry now. What would you like?”

I ordered spicy dumplings, the most expensive item on the menu, and two buns. “No chili pepper, please. It gives me diarrhea.”

The girl giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. She had white teeth, slightly crooked, but utterly lovely. The mother slapped her head gently and scolded her in their own language. The girl stuck out her tongue and brought me a cup of tea.

“Your daughter is beautiful,” I said to the owner. “I didn’t know you have two girls.”

“I have only one daughter. Still like a child, though married for three years. When is she going to grow up?” She padded her daughter’s cheek affectionately and went into the kitchen.

My chin dropped. Everything about the girl—blushed cheeks with baby fat, the down hair around her lips, slim wrists and hips and shy smile--indicated she was just a girl, no more than thirteen years. She couldn’t possibly be a woman married for three years, couldn’t possibly got pregnant. Or perhaps that was why she got a miscarriage?

“How old are you? What school do you attend? What grade? Your favorite teacher?”

She giggled, and her face became shadowy as I shot one question after another. She lowered her head.

“I’m sixteen. I quit school when I married.”

“What’s your favorite subject?” I still didn’t want to give up.

She looked up, eyes moist. “I like to read and write.”

I perked up. “Stories, poems?”

“Stories. I like to read and write stories.”

“Do you still…?”

She shook her head. “No time. Home is busy. Have to cook for my husband and his whole family, parents, brothers and sisters. I didn’t really know how. I do know how to cook for a few people, but not for so many. They are nice to me and don’t complain much. But I can tell that my cooking isn’t up to their standard. When I have time, I go help out in my husband’s store. He sells flour, rice, dried noodles in Lhasa. If I still have time, I come here to help my mom.”

“Do you miss school?”

She shook her head again, then nodded. “I was a good student. My teacher wanted me to finish middle school, perhaps go to college. But what did she know? No girls in our village finish middle school, let alone college. If we don’t get married by 15, people start talking and looking at us weird as if something is wrong with us. By 18, if we’re still single and live with our parents, we become official spinsters, and have little chance to marry, and the whole family will be shamed.”

“How old are you, really?” I stared at her hard, hoping to find the truth. The more I looked, the younger she became.

“Sixteen.” She looked at me in the eyes. So she wasn’t lying.

“Isn’t it illegal to marry before you turn 18?”

She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. “Chinese say money can make ghosts grind flour. For two hundred yuan, we can change our birthdays. So officially I am 21.” She laughed. I laughed with her, but my heart ached when I saw her childish face crunched like a little old lady.

“How did you get married in the city?”

She blushed. “I married my cousin. I was betrothed to him when I was six.”

“You love him?”

She giggled, covering her mouth with her hand again. “We get along. He’s three month older, so we’re almost like brother and sister. I grew up alone as a child. My mother lost a few babies before she had my little brother. When he was one, I came to Lhasa. So it’s nice to have someone to talk with and play with. Just wish I had more time with him. He’s so busy in his store, working seven days a week except for holidays.”

Her brother tugged her sleeve and pointed to the grocery story across the street. She held his hands firmly. “No, no candy unless you finish the soup,” she said. The boy blinked his eyes and started to cry. The mother came out with my dumplings. She placed it in front of me and picked up the boys.

“Baby, baby, don’t cry. Eat the soup and we’ll get you some candy.”

She looked up at me apologetically. “All he wants is potato chips and cookies and candies. I know it’s not good for him, but we got him so late and he was sick a lot as a baby. So we spoiled him. ”

The boy tugged her mother’s scarf and pointed at my dumplings.

“No baby, no, you’ve the beef and noodles. Eat this.”

I poured half of my dumplings into an empty bowl. “Please, I can’t finish this anyway. Let him help me.”

“Thank you. But this is too much.” The mother went back to the kitchen as if ashamed. The girl picked up a dumpling with her chopsticks, blew on it to cool, then fed it to her brother. He took a bite, frowned, then spat it out. Her sister scolded him. The boy cried, pointing to the store, his sallow face wrinkled like an old man. He was really thin and small for a four-year-old, and really crappy.

“Is this chongcao?” I pointed to the plastic cup. In it, there were three worm like plants.

She looked up at me. “Yes. My father brought it home during lunch time.”

I picked one up. It looked exactly like a worm, head, wrinkled body with legs under the belly, and tail, but it was hardened like a root, and a dried sprout through its mouth. Mr. Ma had told me that chongcao’s full name was dongchong xiacao: a worm in winter and a plant in summer, or Chinese caterpillar fungus. In the fall, bat-shaped moths laid eggs on the highland grass. Lava hatched, grew fat, and some of them would be infected by fungus, which absorbed nutrients from the lava to replicate itself. In pain, the lava crawled into the soil, always heads up, and died slowly in the winter, and the lava became young chongcao. In May, June and July, the fungus burst out of the lava’s mouth and blossomed into a tiny purple flower. If it was picked on the first day flowering, the herb would be the most potent. The second day found was ok. By the third day, the plant was nothing but worthless weed, losing all its medicinal potency. Mr. Ma also said this worm plant, if it was real, was good to every organ in the body, the kidney, the lung, the liver. It could heal bloody sputum, night sweat, cough, impotence, pains in the back and legs, the hepatocirrhosis from Hepatitis B. If one could take this often, he would stay healthy, strong, and peaceful, and live till 120 years old.

I lifted the herb to the sun. The worm plant looked perfect and real indeed. It was so tiny and light. It’d take tens of thousands of them to make a kilogram. Mr. Ma said often a hunter would search a whole day without finding a thing. And the most successful day was ten. Every year, every inch of the vast grassland was dug and turned over several times by the chongcao hunters. The fragile vegetations would never grow back once it was destroyed. That was why the herb became more and more scarce, and more and more expensive. The grassland was becoming desert very quickly because of the digging.

“It’s real. No glue, no plaster, no dye,” said the owner’s daughter. “My father brought it home super excited. It’s rare to find such a treasure on the market these days. He’s so happy that he went to the bathhouse to celebrate.”

I remembered the signs of bathhouse in the alleys I’d walked through. So that was where the man of the household hung around, first the market, then the bathhouse. Did he ever help his wife at all?

“Would you like to buy it?” The mother came out of the kitchen, wiping hands on her apron. “I’ll give you a good price.”

I shook my head. I’d never have peace of mind if I took this herb while knowing I was contributing to the destruction of Tibet’s grassland. Her smile stiffened, and she looked worried. Did she also have to sell chongcao on top of selling her buns? Would she be yelled at if she couldn’t sell it? I gazed at her pale, puffy complexion, a sign of lung and heart deficiency. Her crying son was now tugging at her sleeve, pulling her in the direction of the candy. His scrawny, sallow face indicated that every organ in his tiny body--lungs, kidneys, liver—was malnutritioned and deficient. Both of them could benefit from this magic herb.

“You and your son should eat this,” I finally said, holding out the worm towards her.

She took a few steps back, staring at me as if I had just become a monster. “No, no, no!” she gasped, shaking her head violently. “We can’t afford it, we don’t deserve it.”

“ You deserve this a thousand times better than anyone else in the whole Lhasa,” I was almost shouting, stepping forward to grab her hand and press the herb into her calloused palm. “Make a bowl of soup for yourself with this, for God’s sake, and eat it before your husband comes home. Here, I’m buying this,” I pulled out two one-hundred-yuan bills, and thrusted them into her other hand, “only on the condition that you take this for yourself, now.”

“You’re hurting me,” she said, tears flowing down her cheeks. She put the money back into my hand and fled into the kitchen with the tiny worm plant, and closed the door behind her. The boy pounded on the door, wailing. “Mom, I want candy, I want candy.” I stood there at a loss. What had I just done? The last thing I wanted was hurting her.

The daughter touched me gently and said, “Please sit down and eat your dumplings. They’re getting cold.” She picked up the boy, whispered something to his ear, and he smiled, waving his hand. “Now, I want to go now.”

I stood up and pulled out a twenty-yuan bill. “Is this enough for the lunch?”

She looked my untouched food. “You don’t like our dumplings?”

I sat down again and spooned one into my mouth, then another. I chewed as hard as I could. “The best dumplings I’ve ever had. Did you help your mom make these?”

She nodded, glancing at the closed door. “We made them last night. We used the flour from my husband’s store, the best kind. It’s more expensive than the flour from the Chinese stores, but it’s one hundred percent pure, nothing else.”

I opened my eyes wide. “You mean there’s fake flour too?”

She smiled. “There are always kinds of stuff in the flour and everything else. You’ve heard the fake baby milk powder story, right? The same with flour. It’s much easier to mix it with other things, like potato, yam, ash, sand, in the powdered form. Who could tell the difference? My husband’s store is probably the last one that won’t do the trick. So we can’t compete with the Chinese stores who sell their goods at a much lower price. I don’t know how long he can keep doing this.”

“Don’t people know?”

“They do. But when they see the price difference, they always go for the cheaper, even though they know well that our store sells the best rice and flour and noodles.”

“What about Muslims? Surely they’d buy things from your store, right?”

She sighed, a deep furrow between her arched eyebrows. “It’s all about money these days. It only recognizes money, nothing else.”

“Hey, what do you do for fun with your husband?” I wanted to lighten the air. She was too young to shoulder so much weight. In America, she would be going to school and celebrating her sweet sixteen with her friends.

“Fun?” she looked at me as if I were an alien. “We prayed together, sometimes.”

“Don’t you travel together, like taking a vacation? Are you planning to go to Shanghai Expo?”

She laughed as she picked up her brother and walked out the eatery. “Perhaps in my next life? I’d like to go to college like you, Auntie, and perhaps visit America and the rest of the world, if I pray hard enough, and do as many good deeds as possible this life.”

“What’s your name?” I caught her before she stepped out of the threshold.

She hesitated a moment, then said in a low voice, “Jiang Aixue.”

Aixue—love school, or love snow. “Beautiful name. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you, Aixue. May your wish come true next life, perhaps even this life.”

She smiled, a deep dimple appeared in her left cheek, revealing her white, crooked teeth. My heart ached at her loveliness. “Aixue, please…” I stopped, not knowing what to say next. I wanted to do something for her so badly, but what I could really do? This was her world, tightly knit and closed in. No girl had ever broken away from her clan, as she had said. I remembered Mr. Ma’s wish for his daughter. Would she be able to make it to college with her father’s support?

Aixue stood on the threshold waiting for my words. I finally asked: “what’s your mother’s name?”

She gazed at me as if I were crazy. Before I could say anything, she whispered, “Kelisu.”

What a nice name, just as lovely as her daughter’s name. But why did she keep her Muslim name and gave her daughter a Chinese one? Did she want her daughter to fulfill her own unfulfilled dream? I watched Aixue walking across the street carrying her brother on her back. Her frame was thin and undeveloped, despite her three-year-old married life, yet her steps were firm and determined. She seemed to know where she was going.

She looked back to wave good-bye. She was smiling, but I saw tears in her bright eyes. I raised my camera to stop my own eyes from tearing. “Remember how lucky you are, Ping,” I said to myself as I clicked. “Just remember how damn lucky!”

My phone dinged. My Lhasa friend had just texted, inviting me to an afternoon tea with his friends in a five-star hotel. I took out a peace knot from the bag that had been blessed in Jokhang Monastery and placed it on the twenty-yuan bill. It looked small and insignificant on the paper money. Then I remembered the monk’s words: it’s not the size or how much, it’s the intention of good will.

I stood up and said to the kitchen, “Kelisu, I am sorry if I offended you. It’s not my intention. I just want to give you my best wishes for a happy life and flourishing business. I’ll keep my fingers crossed every day for you, your daughter and son, and your business. This red knot was blessed. Hope it’ll bring you peace and safety. I’m going home tomorrow. I hope I’ll come back and eat your buns again.”

The eatery was quiet. The only sound was the hum of the refrigerator. The only movement was the steam rising from the gigantic bamboo steamer. I put the teacup on the money and left. Outside the eatery, I looked back. Kelisu was looking out from the small metal window, her face a dark silhouette against the light.

As I had expected, the tea party gathered Lhasa’s rich and powerful men: an aristocrat who owned the company that sells Tibetan herbs, a handsome Kangba Tibetan incense merchant who speaks English better than Chinese, a stout, big-headed Anduo Tibetan who got rich smuggling gold and other precious metal but now runs several five-star hotels in Lhasa, and many others, along with two young girls for entertainment. We ate, drank, and laughed at dirty jokes, and spent over five thousand yuan for the afternoon tea. My mind constantly drifted to the eatery. Was Kelisu busy making the buns for tomorrow morning? Was Aixue still helping her mother or cooking dinner for her husband’s family instead?

Finally I excused myself from the party, saying that I had to pack for tomorrow’s train to Shanghai. I hailed a cab, but at a loss where I should go. I wasn’t ready to get back to my hotel yet. The driver waited until I told him to take me to the square where the Muslims gathered. In less than ten minutes, I was back at the square. My third time of the day. There were no straw hats or trading this time. No women or children. Only men in black clothes. Lots of them, walking silently as one big mass into an alley. I followed them with my eyes, and saw the gold and green dome of the mosque, shining under the Tibetan praying flag in the golden sunset. The black mass receded from the market like a tide. Soon, the square was abandoned. After a moment of eerie silence, a long, melodious voice came from the mosque. The calling of Azan, followed by the prayer from all the men in dark suits. My knees wobbled as I listened to the singing. Two people walked slowly into the square, one woman and one girl. The woman seemed very tired as she held onto the girl’s shoulder. Both dressed in black from head to toe, except for the pink headscarf on the girl. Jiang Aixue, I almost shouted, but checked myself. They walked to the center of the market, and stopped next to an abandoned sewing machine. Eyes fixed on the mosque, they listened to the sound of praying. I walked towards them. I just wanted to stand next to them. As I got closer, I saw the little peace knot on Aixue. She had peeled back the scarf and pinned it to her hair. In the sunset, the little red silk knot burned like a torch, lighting up her temple, her whole face.