Saturday, February 7, 2015
Sugar Loaf Mountains
To have these things surge out of the earth, seemingly from nowhere, is always a great and wonderous feeling. They are the true Tao, the meeting place where unexpecting heaven is pierced in ecstasy by the unpredictable earth.
The trees and vines growing uncontrollably on them in the delight of human absence gives these outcroppings an aspect of timlessness.
These mountains, as I roll between them, are quintessential Asia; they shelter the caves that sheltered the wise man who knew where the hermit was hiding. They are deep in the heart of me, deep in the silent.
There are only 25 km between Sam Neua and Vieng Xay. At Kilometer Twenty is the road I had taken a week before to head to the Nam Ma River, and at this crossroads I stopped for a phô. It was bitterly cold, which in Laos means I could see my breath. A huge old bus had broken down there, one of its tires deflated. Its metal work had been painted and scratched and sanded so many times you could barely make out the English word that had once been stencilled on its side: Welcome.
Now it was piled high with bags and produce, filled to the gills with patient passengers, many of whom where sitting on their haunches outside enjoying a cigarette while the crew bounced up and down in unison on a long iron shaft trying to free the wheel bolts. Their movement was fluid; a florescent up-down that at any moment could send one of the crew into outer space. The little elastic ride eventually ended, however, with a bolt giving way. You could almost hear the breathtaking crack of the rust deep within the valley.
They eventually got the tire fixed and the behemoth rolled on its way in an ecstatic exhaling of black diesel dust. A billowing bosom cloud engulfing the road and the little fresh goods market set up by the side of it. I turned right and went the final five clicks into town, down a rumbling collection of hamlets surrounded by these fabulous monuments.
It felt as though I were riding in moonlight, so slowly did life rotate around me; all the land seemed to conspire to hypnotize me and thus in a trance did Charlene and I climb hill and descend valley.
Vieng Xay is to the Lao Communist Party as the Western Wall is to the Jews. The muscle strong sinew caves of the sugar loaf mountains held in their humid midsts the entire Pathet Lao leadership back in the day while the CIA was carrying on its Secret War trying to bomb the Viet Cong into submission. How America could have betrayed her ideals in conducting a secret war remains one of the great and frightening political questions of the 20th Century, but we know that the Lao people – a population at that time barely out of hunting and gathering, a people with a crime rate of next to zero, a nation that had asked for nothing – had paid the price for this perfidy.
There are tours of the Pathet Lao caves, but I really was not interested. I just wanted to roll around the city and find a place where I could sit and breathe with the soil. By pure chance I found a cave meeting hall, and by going around the sugar loaf I found myself at the upper curve of a valley ringed by mountains and filled with lush light-seeking vegetation.
There I stayed the entire day.