21 November 2011 Suzhou, China.
Well, well, well. I knew I’d soon be under pressure to conclude my journey with Munira through the Arab world because once I start getting to know China, you’d be sending me none-too-subtle signs that it’s now your turn. A happy occasion it would be, I always knew, when I should run into you there. I’ve been looking forward to finding your little hints in the nooks and crannies of Old Suzhou, the fancies and foibles of the Chinese and the scents, smells and stenches of whatever would still take some time to get used to. But I knew that portals to the twelfth century would be everywhere.
You must forgive me, but, much as I anticipated meeting you, nothing had prepared me for your suddenly confronting me face-to-face barely a fortnight after I’d set foot in Suzhou. How did you find out so quickly that I was here and how did you make the journey over from Kyoto? (and where’s my Kimono?—only joking).
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am very happy to have bumped into you on Tiger Hill, but I was with a new friend who’d kindly offered to take me there for the day at the expense of her own precious work time. I know she didn’t mind my spending so much time with you, but your popping up around every corner did get a little in the way of my acknowledging her generosity. She might’ve had better things to do than watch me go all starry-eyed and rabbit on about you and what you’re getting up to in all those prose-inducing spots around the pagoda, fascinating as it might’ve been to watch.
I was impressed with your leading me into the ambience of so many ancient writers in the Hall with Clear Autumn Crisp Air, but the vanity behind that little stunt wasn’t lost on me – you forget that I’m the writer, you’re the character. Be that as it may, it was a lovely surprise and I was pretty bowled over to find myself in a space that writers had been making pilgrimages to for a thousand years for exactly the same reason that I was doing then – inspiration! – except that my finding myself there was not the culmination of an epic trial of mind, body and spirit, but the end of an ordinary Suzhou taxi ride. Oh yes, the banal always creeps in somewhere. Trust me.
Oh, a taxi is a kind of sedan (with wheels) that moves by itself without slaves carrying it. There’s already a man inside whom you have to pay a small amount of treasure and he’ll make the sedan go wherever you want, but only in this world. And before you ask, no, the man is not a demon (not usually).
So yes, OK, you want to make sure I write about you in a place where I’ll be most inspired so my writing will do justice to an onna bugeisha of your standing. Don’t worry. I intend engaging only my most refined word craft in bringing the most famous female samurai in the world off the page. So, you see, there was actually no need to point out that it was you with your sword who’d cleft the sword-testing rock. In any case, it wasn’t a very smart claim as the rock had been split in the early eleventh century, indeed, in the time of the very ancestor you seek. So I grant that there’s an outside chance it could’ve been that same sword you now own, but it’s just a teeny bit unlikely that it was actually you wielding it at the time. Nice try, though.
But there’s something else (and this you won’t believe), later in the day my friend said she travels to Chang’an regularly and I’d be welcome to go there with her. Chang’an! How lucky is that? So now you have plenty of time to plan all your little ambushes and booby traps that’ll force me to look at your antics wherever I should turn in Chang’an. That’s a quarter of your journey across China covered! Do you realise that? I was thinking: one or two more offers like this and we’ll be together all the way to Persia!
And then – wait for it – one of the writers in the group I’d just joined earlier this evening showed me some pictures she’d made, where? In Kashgar. In Kashgar!!!!! And she travels there on the slightest pretext, apparently. I don’t care whether she likes me or not, I’m going to Kashgar with her. So, you can let me trip all over you there, too.
Tomoe, in the space of two days, people I’ve just met have opened the way for me to be in the very places in China where you find yourself, at one point or another. I don’t know how you did it, but I’m absolutely certain that you’re behind all this. I’m not complaining; it makes my task easier and a lot more exciting, but also just a little freaky, you know. I’m a twenty-first century woman. There are no ghosts in my machines, or anywhere in my world, for that matter. In fact, I have only this world. Sometimes I envy twelfth century people, you and Munira in particular. You effortlessly dip in and out of different worlds or know various beings that can do that and they’re happy to run little errands for you. That’s just so unfair. Not to mention ridiculous. Why can’t I just call up a djinni or a demon who’ll turn anyone I find a pain in the arse into a cockroach that I can then squash without ending up having to explain myself to some fool in a wig? You’ve no idea how tedious twenty-first century justice can be.
But I digress. You gate-crashed my Sunday with my new friend and tried to keep me all to yourself. That may be flattering, but it wasn’t nice. So now, you see, you’re going to have to make up for it. ‘Fat chance!’ I hear you sneer. But wait. I’m having my writer friends proofread my drafts. So there! They’ll scrutinize your every move and whim. They’ll get to know you inside out (no, no, not in that way!). So, Ms Eastern Enigma, all your secrets will be out there. But hey, look on the bright side. When the book’s a best-seller and all the world’s raving about you and millions of readers flock to China to trace your journey and every young woman wants to be Tomoe and interviewers, irritatingly, want to talk about you rather than me, think of how I’d had the foresight to prepare you for the full glare of publicity through the simple expediency of asking a few friends to check my drafts. That includes the friend you were so discourteous to. You owe her an apology.
So, Tomoe baby, enjoy China. I know I will. I’ll be back up on Tiger Hill again in a few weeks. See you then (no doubt).
With all my love,
PS. My friend was quite intrigued when she read all this. I don’t think you need to worry about an apology. She’s cool. Just chill!
3 December 2011 Suzhou, China.
No twelfth century portals stepped through for a fortnight, but no less mind-blowing a fortnight for that. How come I ended up in Suzhou? The question isn’t entirely rhetorical.
I end up in this place I only heard of for the first time a month before, and it turns out to be significant on every level I can think of. For example, not only has this been the traditional centre of writing, as we found out together on Tiger Hill last time, but it’s also where some of China’s great classic works were written. Sun Tzu wrote his The Art of War here and so did Cao Xueqin his famous Dream of the Red Chamber.
I’m finding so many things that tie you, Suzhou, the Song Dynasty, Munira, silk and …wait for it …possibly your ancestors together. Yes, you and Munira might share a common ancestor. And I don’t mean in the way distant pre-history, but less than 200 years before your time. I’m just researching the dates and genealogies now, but I suspect that the Persian ancestor you seek might also be an ancestor of Munira. It’s a crooked arrow, but worth shooting. If it turns out to be so, it’ll probably change both your lives.
Over the last two weeks I became a bit concerned that I was thinking so much about you and your story and gobbling up so much China that I was in danger of forgetting Munira’s story, the one that I’m supposed to be in the middle of writing. But so many of the things I’ve encountered over the last two weeks suggest to me that I should trust myself more. If I just let my mind run free, it’ll take care of all the links and nothing will be forgotten or left out. For example, in two weeks I’ve made the following connections:
1. You and Munira might share a relatively recent ancestor through a 10th century link between Japan and Persia.
2. Suzhou is the historic centre of silk production and, of course, when Munira makes her way along the Silk Road, she’s disguised as Marwan, a silk merchant from Damascus. Sorry, the ‘Silk Road’ is a 19th century term for the historic overland trade route between Japan and China in the East through Persia and on to Europe and Africa in the West—in fact, the route you’re trying to take. I don’t know whether you guys had a specific name for it.
3. Several medieval Chinese emperors had a penchant for Arab and Persian women (the Chinese didn’t distinguish between them—they all had olive skins, strong bodies, firm breasts and huge eyes (that’s what Munira looks like).
4. The reason for the Silk Road developing in the first place is that the Chinese emperors wanted Arabian horses and these could only be acquired from, well, Arabia. So the Sogdians, an ancient Persian people living in what was Transoxania in your time, sold Arabian horses to the Chinese in the Fergana Valley ‘down the road’ from Kashgar. I could hardly contain my excitement when I found this out. I now know how Munira got hold of Fairuz. The Chinese, quite naturally, had infiltrated Persia to get to the source of the horses. They stole mares from the breeding stables in Baghdad and Munira had, in turn, stolen one of these stolen mares from the Chinese. The authorities were unlikely to suspect her of having stolen the horse because she isn’t Chinese.
5. Sogdians have travelled deep into China.
6. The Chinese name ‘Yuan’ means ‘Greek’ (from ‘Ionian’, though another Mongol-derived name ‘Yuan’ emerged later during the Song Dynasty – your time) and the Greeks in question were the Bactrians (the Afghans of my day). The Chinese name ‘Ma’ means ‘Muhammed’—links, links, links.
Apart from all this, I’m beginning to get a better idea of how you make your way across China, but I’m beginning to have doubts about this Buddhist monk disguise thing. I think in China you should travel openly as a warrior and adopt the name ‘Youxia’. It means ‘Honourable Warrior’ and holds a similar place in Chinese society as Samurai holds in yours. Killing the rich to help the poor, it seems, is what in my time would be called, a ‘transferable skill’. You’ll be both feared and respected. This will account for your arrogance, your natural aloofness and your dire lack of a sense of humour. How am I doing so far? Look, if your writer doesn’t tell you this, who does?
It will also enable you to claim to be the child of Song Jiang or, at least, lead people to believe you are, if it should suite you. If you let your name be ‘discovered’, people will be so shit-scared of you that you’ll be bandit-proof. You’re probably going to have to claim to be his son rather than his daughter, else death-wish bandits will simply not believe that you can kill them, even with a name like Youxia. Don’t take offence. I’ve no doubt that you can see off the fiercest band of nutters with little trouble, but leaving a trial of dead bodies isn’t the best way of moving across a vast country undetected. Its far better your name clears a way for you and keeps trouble at a distance.
You can then say you were born in the town of Song Jiang, near Shanghai, which will account for your ‘foreign’ sword and weird accent. There’s a Yuan Dynasty mosque in Song Jiang. This solves a lot of problems for us because it means that by the time you get there, there is already an established Muslim community in the area. You have to spend enough time in Song Jiang, Tomoe, so that when you come to travel across China, you can easily switch between being Muslim and being Buddhist, as the need arises. I dare say you’re going to need this faculty the further west you travel.
Listen Dangerous Woman, I’ve got to go.
Big hugs. You know I love you.
PS. I’ve not yet been to The Humble Administrator’s Garden (which enjoys the highest possible praise here in my time), but I have no doubt that you’ll be waiting for me there. I really look forward to seeing you again. XX
16 February 2012 Suzhou, China.
It’s been several months since I’ve written to you and a great deal has happened since my last letter back in August. The biggest news is that I’ve moved to As-Seen, which is now a single country we call China and at peace with itself. The capital is no longer Chang’an, but Zhongdu (now called Beijing). I live in Suzhou. Yes the Suzhou, the very place where As-Seen makes its best silk. I knew you’d be envious. Don’t worry. You still have all the pirouzeh and I have none—you know it’s always been my favourite gem and colour (we call it ‘turquoise’). At least now we’re both envious! But there is more: I found out that a variant of pirouzeh is Firouzeh, a Persian woman’s name in my time. The Arabic version of Firouzeh is Fairuz (my middle name), which means ‘turquoise’, ‘Precious One’ or ‘victory’. And there’s more: Anjuli means ‘blessing’ and ‘inconquerable’. Can you imagine what I felt when I learnt all this?
You and silk! Oh, that would be a fine trick, but unfortunately, I live in the twenty-first century, remember? I don’t know any djinn that can bring you silk directly from Suzhou. I don’t know any djinn full stop, and before you ask, I don’t know anyone who knows any either. So if you send any djinn here from the twelfth century, please do not send them to me (even bearing turquoise).
I visited Fez again two weeks ago, but did not see you, although I did see Ibn Rushd outside the Qayrawan Library. I’d actually gone there to look for an old slave market just off Achebine near the Qayrawan Mosque, but couldn’t find it. I know that it was a horrible episode in your life, Munira, but I need to actually be in a place where human beings bought and sold human beings to try to get closer to what you must’ve experienced in the short time that you were a slave. Oh God! I hadn’t even considered the possibility that you might follow me there and what that might do to you. I’m truly sorry. But I am going to have to do this, Munira, please understand—if not in Fez, then elsewhere in the Muslim world. OK. We can talk about it before I do that to make sure you are not upset about it. Thank you.
Why am I determined to bring As-Seen into the story of your life? Oh, that’s an interesting question and very perceptive, I have to say. I have to confess it never crossed my mind that either you or Tomoe might be interested in why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’ve already written to her twice while here and she’s been appearing in front of me, in my time, whenever I find myself in a place that’s part of her story. It’s much like you and the Maghreb, when I kept bumping into you in Fez, the Atlas Mountains, and the Tafilalt Oasis. I’m sure she’ll soon start wondering, ‘why is Anjuli doing this?’ and start asking me the same questions.
It was while researching famous female fighters of the 12th century that I came across the female samurai (Japanese warriors of your time) of whom Tomoe Gozen was the most famous. She’d fought in the critical Genpei War that her side lost in 1185. A particular conspiracy of predicaments, one of which was the certainty of imminent gang-rape, then impels her to flee Kyoto late on the night of her defeat in battle, just as you’ve had to flee Baghdad. She manages to take along with her only two manuscripts, neither of which she’s read, but that she instinctively knows she has to save. She makes her way across As-Seen, reading these manuscripts as she goes along. Whereas initially she had no idea where she was going, as she learns more about herself along the way, the journey gradually reveals its destination to her. Thus she comes to realise that she’s looking for her ancestor and later also learns who he might have been and where his final resting place might be found. She eventually crosses into Persia, reaching her destination, Hamadan, on 9 October 1187, entering just as several thousand people leave that city on pilgrimage to freshly-liberated Jerusalem. You are hiding in that crowd on the start of your own quest.
You can see why I need to write to the two of you. Your experiences, your growth and the events of your lives are two parts of a greater narrative that neither of you can see on your own, but need another to see (and write) for you. It’s only when the two of you meet in the Afterlife that you realise you are one. Perhaps your meeting there needs to be the final novel to complete a trilogy. I don’t know.
Silk. Soft, sensuous and secure—the silver thread of female allure that binds us together like the silver light of the moon. Tomoe effectively travels the great trade road across Asia, the Silk Road, as it is called in my time) from Nara in Japan to Hamadan, where she hands over the greater story to you, who carries it further West along the Silk Road, all the way to the Maghreb. You were not born in the wrong place, Munira. You were born in the wrong time. That’s part of the greater story.
But back to your question: I suppose I can’t answer it, Munira. I turned 55 yesterday. Perhaps I’m middle-aged now and so I suppose I should have something sensible to say, who knows? Oh, thank you. That’s …really kind of you say. You know, the more I think about you and Tomoe, the more I begin to sense that the experience of my own life is more than I can hold within me at any one time. So it seems I’ve parcelled it all out between you and her because I find each of you going through discrete experiences that echo my own, in particular the stages you go through as you discover who you are and how you grow into yourselves. Both of you, through my following your journeys, are helping me understand my own, at times tortuous, multiple journeys. Through you, I’m beginning to understand something about a spirit that is handed over from one life to another life, until it finds a place to settle. It is a great privilege to know you, Munira, and to know Tomoe.
Or perhaps I’m just following the Prophet Muhammed’s hadith, “Seek knowledge wherever it may be, even unto As-Seen.” This hadith is hotly disputed by the more backward elements controlling Islamic thought in my time. The substance of the objections is: not quite all knowledge; not quite by everyone. In other words, they will denigrate any knowledge that’s inconsistent with their particularly circumscribed view of the world and, especially, women seeking knowledge. Yes, my dear Munira, the darkness that merely threatened to seal minds during your time has, even long before my time, come to obliterate thought altogether. Muslim eyes after your time cannot see not because they’re blind, but because they know only darkness. Darkness is all they’ve been allowed to see (and allowed themselves to see) for almost a thousand years.
The backward elements deny that the Prophet had ever encouraged his followers to seek knowledge without restraint. And even if the Prophet had never said, “Seek knowledge wherever it may be, even unto As-Seen,” then in my opinion, he would have said it had he been asked, because, unlike Muslims after the twelfth century, he still had the benefit of ijtihad.
Now I live in As-Seen, not only seeking knowledge, but also sharing my own. This is a country on the brink of major social change and unlike the change you faced in the dying days of the Abbasid Caliphate, this is change for the better. Like those in your day who sealed the gates of ijtihad, there are still those today who would keep Islam starved of free thinking for another thousand years, if they could have their way. Tomoe witnessed the creative light of the Heian Jidai obliterated by the darkness of the Kamakura Shogunate. For you, it was the rise of a lifeless Islam that took pride in its prohibitions and punishments because it had nothing left to be proud of, except its grim insistence on being ‘the last religion’—a double-edged sword that it might yet come to use on itself.
Gosh! That’s an abrupt change of subject. Actually, that’s perhaps not such a bad idea. It’d be fun to compare twelfth century Arab dress with twelfth century Cinese dress. Your friend Wallada should know something about this. She used to run a fashion house in Cordoba and got her silk directly from As-Seen. Why don’t you ask her? So, on that refreshing note, I’ll stop writing, slip into my beautiful Suzhou silk nightdress and go to bed.
I love you with all my heart.
Your sister in another century,
6 March 2012 Suzhou, China.
I hope that all is well with you. Since I last wrote to you my feelings have been like a ship on a stormy sea. I went from elation to disappointment and back again, sometimes all in one day. Today, the waters are calm.
I’ve been to the Maghreb a little over a month ago where, as you know, Munira spends an important part of her life. When she landed there, she was a slave, but had managed to escape. I needed to get closer to understanding the experience of standing on display before a crowd while a buyer and seller haggle over your price. I’d heard of a courtyard building in Fez that used to be a slave market and is still intact. By the way, slavery is immoral and illegal in my time, although it is still practised in some isolated places. The old slave market in Fez, thankfully, now sells less controversial merchandise.
I couldn’t find the old slave market in the warren of narrow, dark alleyways that still exists almost exactly as Munira will have known them in the twelfth century (so I was also surprised not to bump into her there). I then visited my friend in Fez before returning to China. But the journey wasn’t wasted, because, apart from seeing my friend, I did manage to collect my possessions that she’d been looking after for me—traditional Maghrebi fabrics and crockery and some books. I want to bring all my memories from all my different lives together in my new home in China.
I’d spent a lot of time reflecting on those lives since I last wrote to Munira. Something she asked me set it all off. She wanted to know why I was so determined to connect her story to China. That got me to realise I have no choice. The life I’d had, the personality I am and the circumstances under which I find myself, together make it very likely I’d write your stories.
But thinking about my life reminded me of a dangerous journey I’d made across a desert in Africa many years ago. Maps of the area were unreliable and as I was heading to where I knew there was a small lake, I came to an unexpected fork in the track. I’d worked out that the two branch tracks had to lead around each side of the lake and join up again on the far side—but I couldn’t be sure. I simply had to chance it. Fortunately, I did end up where I’d expected to on the opposite side of the lake, but there was no sign of the other track joining it. So where did that track lead and where would I have ended up had I taken it?
I was also greatly inspired by a talk in Shanghai last weekend called China’s Muslim Frontier: The Peoples of the Silk Road. Afterwards I told the speaker about your story. He was intrigued. His book on the subject, which I bought, has a map of the very Taklamakan Desert that you cross. And there it was: the confluence of three rivers close to a lake in the north Taklamakan. This map, together with my memory of a similar desert scene in Africa where I so nearly lost my way, suggested a solution to how you come to find yourself at the Ganges when you were heading for Persia. At the confluence, you take the Khotan tributary to the south instead of the Yarkant to the west. The wrong river eventually leads you to Hindustan instead of Persia.
This is a neat solution. The only problem is: if you are to attend the Kumbh Mela, for which I’d worked out such great scenes by the Ganges for you (with several wonderful allusions), then I’m afraid you can’t make it to Hamadan by 9 October 1187, where you and Munira pass each other in the throng just outside the city. Your encounter at Hamadan is critical to the whole project. I was disappointed about this because I’d already gone quite far along this road, so to speak, exploring your interaction with the pujaries, the Sanskrit scholars, the sadhus and the yogis against the frenzied backdrop of the Kumbh Mela with all its individual characters, each with their own crazy reasons for being there. Letting a writer loose in the Kumbh Mela is like letting a child loose in a sweet shop. So I’m sorry (both for you and for me), but spectacular as it will’ve been, there’s going to be no Kumbh Mela for you (or for my novel). In my time we say, ‘the show must go on’. Well, no. That’s a bit crass. What I mean is I have to make the combined story of you and Munira take precedence over each of your separate stories. As a samurai, I think you’ll understand that. Thank you. Yes, I know, but I’m still grateful.
Er, confession: I am actually going to the Kumbh Mela myself in 2013. I know, I know, I’m sorry, but I had to tell you because I’ve already told Munira and, well, I’d feel uncomfortable not sharing with you something that means so much to me and that I know you were getting excited about. But you’ll have other amazing experiences to look forward to—I promise.
And there’s another change. We talked the last time about not fighting your way across China. I’d been talking to a friend about the fighting spirit of soldiers when she got me to understand that you feel most alive when your life comes closest to being lost. Why should I make your journey more difficult by denying you access to your essence? It’s the same problem I faced when Munira travels from Persia to the Maghreb disguised as a man. How can you convince yourself you are a man when in your heart you are not? When and how does she get relief from having to be a man all the time?
In your case, it will have to be your fighting that reconnects you with yourself. The problem for you will be that it is precisely when you are yourself that others will regards you as not yourself, because you’ll appear not to be what they think you are. ‘Woman’ does not equal ‘fighter’. ‘Man’ equals ‘fighter’. And when you’re not a fighter, when you’re not who you are, those around you will be happy that you are as you should be. This is the other reason I’m so disappointed at your not being able to attend a Kumbh Mela. The mythical Saraswati River would’ve given us the opportunity to discuss Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge of the self. This would have been the proper scene to really explore what it means to be who you are. So we’re going to have to find another way of doing that. But, essentially, I’m saying you don’t have to worry that you’re going to have to suppress your true nature for several years. We’ll make sure that you can meaningfully connect with yourself throughout your journey.
That’s it! You’re right! Why didn’t I think of that? There’s no reason you couldn’t, say, encounter a sadhu at the Ganges and have this conversation with him. It’s brilliant! You’re on the bank of the Ganges contemplating a life-changing decision when a sadhu appears. There are always holy men wandering the banks of the Ganges. The sadhu is completely naked, as many of them are, and bearing an empty water pitcher, as many of them do. He appears in the dead of night covered in white ash, a common practise amongst Hindu holy men. He appears to be standing on the water and floating silently towards you. Is he a man or a ghost? Is he real or not real? Is he a kami, or from the Afterlife? Is he the ancestor you seek, come to show you the way (you don’t know this, but he devised what in my time came to be known as the ‘floating man experiment’), or is he simply Jesus walking on water (and at the same time the Holy Spirit)? In which case, who/what/where is God? I’ll leave the reader with these questions.
The sadhu tells you his name is Vyasa, but you mishear him and think he said ‘Krishna’, a name you think you’d heard before, but don’t quite remember where. An incredible cross-purposes conversation then develops in which he thinks you’re his estranged wife returned to seek forgiveness and you think he’s telling you about finding essential knowledge of the self. The scene is so surreal that you think the water pitcher is the urn in which this ghost’s ashes had been sunk in the middle of the river. He ends up forgiving ‘his wife’ and you end up learning what you need to learn about yourself. You then have the clarity to take the decision you need to take: to proceed to Persia. Tomoe, I’m not going to miss this golden opportunity to rework the Dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, and once more tie your story back to Munira’s. The scene’s going to be a challenge to write, but boy am I going to enjoy it! No, no. Sorry. That’s just an exclamation. I don’t mean you’re a boy.
For a fleeting moment I thought you’re going have to learn a great deal about Hinduism to convincingly represent Arjuna to the reader, but that thought abandoned itself before it was even properly formed. The scene will be less contri
ved and much more powerful if you act out the central wisdom of the Bhagavad-Gita ignorant of it. Your Dialogue is shown as the accidental outcome of a random series of misunderstandings—but is it? That’s the question for the reader. You face the sadhu (your ‘Krishna’) ignorant of both sadhus and Krishna, free of preconceptions and stereotypes. The Dialogue is explained in Munira’s story—a purely intellectual exercise between her and the philosopher Ibn Rushd. But in your story it is experienced—in real fear, unsteadiness, trust, confidence and finding your heart through mistakes—and enabled by talking to a naked sadhu who lives like an animal and stinks to high heaven. God, I feel I’m going to burst with excitement. Your story’s going to be amazing, Tomoe, just amazing! And I can’t wait to write it.
Your friend who carries your heart in another time,
15 March 2012 Suzhou, China.
Our last conversation has really piled on the pressure. Now I am becoming concerned that your story will crowd Munira’s story out of my mind. I’ve had to focus on a demanding (but achievable, I believe), target for getting her story published next year. This means I have to work on it and can’t forget it or put it off till later because I want to work on yours. Oh, yes. I do believe I’m in danger of doing that. You have no idea how your story’s taken off in the last ten days.
After we found the critical decision point on the bank of the River Ganges, I’d been thinking of other points along your route that lend themselves to such drama. The point before that is—no, no. It’s not where you set off along the wrong river. Yes that’s true, the decision to follow the Khotan was critical for your journey across Asia, but it wasn’t a decision about the direction of your life. That point comes earlier and lies further east before you even enter the Taklamakan.
At this moment I have no idea what happens or how it happens, but the Jade Gate Pass and the Sun Gate Pass on China’s western frontier are less than 70 Km apart in a rugged, desolate, unforgiving land traversed only by caravans, soldiers and those by demons possessed. It presents an opportunity too good to be missed. I imagine your having close encounters with death and other marginally-less undesirable experiences on account of confusion between these two gates, either accidental or deliberate. This is linked to a life-changing decision you have to take right at the point where you’re also cutting your umbilical cord with your birthplace. I’ll explain. Even though you’ll have been travelling for a long time across a vast territory, up to this point you’ll not yet have left the world as you know it, a world of Chinese cultural values. Even though you are a complete stranger in Dunhuang, you are still in China, albeit in a far-flung corner of it. As a Japanese, you are able to recognise their values and relate to them, even communicate, if you stick to writing. But once you set foot outside these gates, you are in Central Asia, a vast territory controlled by wild, Turkic tribes with whom you have absolutely nothing in common.
You have nothing, and I mean nothing, in common with anyone beyond the Gates. You’d be truly stepping into the unknown. This world you will enter—alone. This is where you weigh up the life you’ve lived against the life you still could live. Perhaps you come to an insight that your life is complete at that point, perhaps an incident at the Gate sends your thoughts in that direction. So even though you’re fully aware that every day beyond the Gate could very easily be you last, you nevertheless see each such day as a bonus, an extra day added to your life. So even if you were to die one day after you passed through the Gate, you’ll have lived one day longer than you should have. That’s how you’ll see it. You see their children ride before they can walk and draw strength from this. Perhaps that’s it: the horse. That’s what you have in common. So, to your own surprise, you face these certain perils with an almost youthful bravado—something along those lines.
There’s also something else I realised—oh, yes, of course. There’s only one other such point. It’s when you’re hiding in the basement of that temple in Nara and it dawns on you that not only can you never go back to your beloved Kyoto, but you have to turn your back on Japan and everything you hold dear. Because you flee Japan that night, we now have a story to write. There shouldn’t be more than three such points in the whole story, I think, and three we have. To have more is to dilute their gravity. What do you think? Yes, I will. I just haven’t given Japan very much thought yet. I think I’ll only visit Kyoto and Nara when your book’s already well underway, although I’m open to persuasion that I should do so earlier.
OK, back to the other thing. It’s a bit silly, actually. It got triggered by the Jade Gate/Sun Gate idea. In all the excitement and anticipation about visiting and getting to know what in my time is called Xinjiang and the Chinese in your time called the Western Regions, I’d overlooked the fact that in the twelfth century, this area wasn’t China. Kashgar is in China now, but it wasn’t in China then. So, contrary to my thinking up till now, you do not leave China when you cross the Pamirs to the west of the Taklamakan, but when you pass through either the Jade or the Sun Gate way to the east of it. When I visit Xinjiang, then, in my own mind I’m going to have to rely much more heavily on the area’s Muslim present and Buddhist past to see past its Chinese present.
So there, see. If it keeps going like this (and I have every reason to believe it will), then Munira’s story could stall. You’re going to have to help me keep working on her novel. But at least you both have momentum now. And, thankfully, you trust me at last. ‘Just about’? What do you mean I couldn’t possibly understand the Japanese? Do you think I need to be Japanese to understand the Japanese? You what?—I’m off to bed!
Take care, ingrate.
Your ever-loving, under-appreciated friend,