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  Field Notes From
On Marco Polo’s Trail

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From Author

Mike Edwards

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From Photographer

Michael Yamashita

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Michael Yamashita (top) and Marisa Montibeller

image: ticket
On Marco Polo’s Trail

Field Notes From Author
Mike Edwards
Every year pilgrims by the tens of thousands journey to Labrang, one of China’s largest monasteries, to earn merit or have prayers answered. Early on a snowy morning I fell in with a hundred men and women walking briskly around the Temple of Longevity and Virtue. “Every day, 400 to 450 circles,” said a man named Gao Lang, answering my questions without stopping.
“For how long?”
“Twenty days.”
Each trip around the temple took about a minute. So the pilgrims made about 60 revolutions an hour in the name of devotion.
Buddhism was well established in China when Marco Polo arrived in the latter 13th century. But it suffered terribly in the Cultural Revolution from 1968 to 1978. Three-quarters of the more than 100 temples at the Labrang Monastery were destroyed, and the monks were scattered. Yet faith did not die. The presence of so many resolute pilgrims was, to me, one of the most inspiring sights in all China, speaking volumes about the resilient spirit of the Chinese people.
I call it the Miracle Road. It’s a miracle that this ancient highway is there, spiraling down from the Pamir mountain range in farthest western China. In places it’s just a narrow track carved beneath towering cliffs. It takes a fierce beating from boulders that drop from above, while in the chasm below the boiling Taxkorgan River eats away at its skimpy underpinnings.
I believe Marco Polo journeyed along this old trade sinew after leaving Afghanistan. I traveled it on an early spring day that suddenly turned vicious. Clouds descended and dumped heavy snow, not flakes but fat watery blobs that loosened a shower of rock. Missiles as big as basketballs bombed the roadway just a couple of hundred yards ahead of the two-SUV caravan that carried Mike Yamashita and me, along with our guides. If we’d been going a few miles faster, I’m not sure I’d be here writing this.
But the real fun was getting out to clear the roadway, for the cliff still had a few more bombs to deposit. We nearly lost one of our interpreters, Gao Jian, when a belated missile whistled down only inches from his head.
I met Mr. and Mrs. Gu, retired factory workers, at dawn in Hangzhou, which, to me, is China’s loveliest city. They had come to a park pavilion to learn Western dance steps that they would not have dared try in their younger years, during the Cultural Revolution.
Mrs. Gu was learning to cha-cha. “She is in the advanced class,” her husband said admiringly. “I can’t cha-cha yet. I just do the waltz.”
The teacher, Mrs. Pan, arrived at 5:30 on a bike, pulling a cart with a disc player and speakers. She plugged in a cord at a fast-noodle kiosk, and music poured forth: Spanish Rose, Auld Lang Syne, waltzes, limbos. Soon three dozen people were swinging and swaying.
This open-air ballroom was a wacky scene. Wacky, corny, and lovely. Sporting a suit and slicked-down hair, a man named Huang guided his partner through a smooth Texas two-step. Then he twirled her in a cha-cha and was gone. It was time to shed his suit and go to his job as a construction laborer.

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