Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 2, Issue 12
This issue looks at a world far, and yet not so far, away from both China and America. It is a world of wide-open spaces and awesome vistas that I had the privilege to explore last month. The southern end of South America is a different other side of the world, with rich history (China and America do make cameos), soaring condors, singing glaciers, and variegated mountain, forest, shrubland, and steppe trails and traverses.
Patagonia: The Other Side of the World
Where is the other side of the world? Americans typically think China, and Chinese often think America (and probably Europe too). The East and West of history. Yet, both countries are located in the Northern Hemisphere. What about the other, other side of the world, the Southern Hemisphere?
We landed in Santiago, Chile, and departed from Buenos Aires, Argentina. In between our principal destination was Patagonia, a three-hour flight further south again. Patagonia is more 8,000 km from Washington, DC, and 20,000 km from Beijing. In fact, when we touched down in the small Chilean port city of Puerto Natales (only 18 km from the Argentine border), we were much closer to Antarctica (5,000± km) than to either global superpower.
Patagonia is an immense region straddling both Southern Chile and Southern Argentina. It is far from the frenetic political, economic, and cultural pulses of Santiago and Buenos Aires. Patagonia is remote. This is a region that breathes a vastness often overwhelming. An endless panorama stretches out in time, place, and space. Words and photographs struggle to give voice to its grandeur. Humans (those few who live and visit here) stand humbled by kaleidoscopic landscapes, flora, and fauna, all bursting with vitality, diversity, and emotion.
Leonard de Vinci wrote that “[n]ature is the source of all true knowledge. She has her own logic, her own laws, she has no effect without cause nor invention without necessity.”
Laozi said in the Dao De Jing Chapter 37, “The Dao [nature] always does nothing (wuwei), but nothing is left undone.”
The Mirador Ferrier (Ferrier Hill Lookout) Trail climbs steeply 600+ meters up and then down in a brief, 3.5 challenging kilometers each way. An unusual late Spring heat sapped energy and drained water bottles. Rough-hewn steps and woodland twists and turns demanded diligence. Pacing was critical. But, my oh my, the reward! Yes, the journey is the prime motivation; however, the destination can also be quite seductive.
The Lookout is a wide, rocky hilltop. Grey Glacier pours into its namesake lake in the distance. There are Paine Grande Mountain and Cerro Ferrier. The majesty of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park is painted in sweeping, delicate strokes. Five condors soared, swooped, and glided against the sparkling blue sky. We had ventured into their domain.
The Andean Condor is the largest flying bird in the world.It is a vulture, a scavenger of carrion, ever circling for fallen prey. The Andean Condor is also graceful and hauntingly distinguished. The appearance of this predator brings conversation to a sudden, reverential halt. Black body set off by stark white patches on the back of its neck and wings. Feathered fingers flare out at each extended wing tip. On this day and another when we saw a dozen condors flying together in Argentina, they seemed to be playing on invisible air currents against an unlimited horizon.
We crossed a river, one of many, while traveling to and from a hike. Its name, Rio de las Chinas, caught my attention. This snaking river courses through the Chilean Valle de las Chinas. Las Chinas must be connected to China somehow. “Why does its name mention China,” I asked our guide? The answer sadly did not surprise me. When outsiders (Europeans) appeared so long ago, they gave the derogatory slang name, las Chinas, to the native women of the region because of their slanting eyes. The name stuck.
Today’s China plays a significant role in both Chile and Argentina, as importer of natural resources, as financier of (sometimes controversial) Belt and Road infrastructure and hydroelectric projects, as hoped-for diplomatic partner. The following reference in Bruce Chatwin’s classic book, In Patagonia (1977), nods to China’s past.
While traveling through the Argentinian side of Patagonia on his own pilgrimage in the mid-1970’s, Chatwin encountered a young man, an American ex-hippie, traveling south. This man was looking for work in a mine. A Welsh shopkeeper tells them that “the nearest [mine] was a kaolin mine at Apeleg.”
“`White china clay.’”
“`White what? D’ye say white? White? Cheesus! A white mine! Where d’ye say that mine was.’”
In ancient times, kaolin clay was sourced only near Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province, China. When combined with petunse stone, the world’s finest porcelain was born.
Our part of Patagonia was a glacial wonderland. Glaciers graced far and near mountains. They groaned and cracked, sang, and calved. We strapped on industrial-strength crampons and hiked up and down the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. This is one of the world’s few glaciers that remains stable and is not yet retreating.
Pure glacial water does fantastical things when it hits rivers and lakes. It is at times milky white with an apparent spongy consistency that almost makes you believe you can walk on it. At other times, it is the most brilliant, exciting turquoise with a deep twinkle that takes the breath away.
As far away from the rest of the world as Patagonia is in distance and daily impact, the greater world has always lent her presence in one form or another. Many have escaped here from abroad to settle and start a new life. Others seek fame and fortune. In 1922 there was a showman’s buzz about the alleged existence of a living plesiosaurus. Expeditions were planned. The University of Pennsylvania wanted to send a team of zoologists to retrieve the specimen because “…the proper place for it was the United States. `It is clear,’ commented the Diario del Plata, `that this world has been created for the greater glory of the North Americans, viz. The Monroe Doctrine.’”
Earlier still, in 1902, a middle-aged, American man living in Argentina wrote to a friend’s mother in Utah. Recounting his successful life down south, he commented that “…the only language spoken in this country is Spanish, and I don’t speak it well enough to converse on the latest scandals so dear to the hearts of all nations, and without which conversations are very stale,….”The man’s name was James Ryan. His birth name was Robert Leroy Parker. His work name had been Butch Cassidy. We crossed historical paths with Butch, Sundance, and Etta Place when we briefly stopped at the same Parador La Leona roadhouse above that they did while fleeing to Chile after robbing a bank in Rio Gallegos in 1905.
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Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, The Dao De Jing: A Qigong Interpretation, YMAA Publication Center, 2018, Pages 224-225.
Except as otherwise noted, all photographs are by the author.
Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia, Vintage Classics, 2005, Page 71.
Chatwin, Page 52.
Chatwin, Page 56.