I spent my Chinese New Year in Nepal

On June 17, 2021, Cai Ling was honored with the party's 50th anniversary commemorative medal and took a photo in front of the office building of the Ministry of Commerce (Photo courtesy of Cai Ling)

Context: Cai Ling was the former first secretary of the Chinese Embassy in Bangladesh. This is translation of her account of travel to Nepal during the Spring Festival in 1997. It was first published on February 28, 2022. Spring Festival is the biggest festival in China usually celebrated between month of January and February of each year.

In the summer of 1996, I accompanied the national delegation to Bangladesh to inspect the construction of a bridge which I assisted in building and a coal mine project that won the bid. At the construction site, at a glance, I could see a snow-capped mountain in Nepal beyond the northern border of Bangladesh, standing majestically on the horizon in the sun, shining with silver light! I was stunned!

At that time, I was determined: I must go to Nepal to witness Mt. Qomolangma on the southern slope of the Himalayas!

The second half of 1996 was quickly spent in a busy environment. In the blink of an eye, the Spring Festival of 1997 had arrived, and even better, the ambassador announced a holiday!

All staffs lined up and pulled banners to send the New Year greetings to the people of the whole country, wishing the prosperity of the motherland and the happiness of the people. On the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, the next day, Zhao Zhongxiang [1] read a congratulatory message from the embassy. I received a phone call from my family, informing that my whole family saw me on TV while watching the Spring Festival Gala! It was such a moment of joy! That night, our embassy held a grand Spring Festival reception, inviting Bangladeshi political leaders, foreign envoys to Bangladesh, celebrities and wealthy businessmen and other people from all walks of life.

Before the Spring Festival, I settled the important matters. On New Year’s Eve in 1997, when the holiday began, I flew directly from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, with the third secretary and an attaché from the office.

The plane flew steadily at an altitude of 10,000 meters in the snow-covered plateau of Nepal. I looked from the porthole. Wow! The endless snow-covered ice fields, the snow-capped mountains and ice peaks were like a fairyland, shining in the sun, it was spectacular!

It may be that Kathmandu is located on the roof of the world, so close to the sky! Within a matter of minutes, the plane landed in Kathmandu’s temple-like red airport.

Here I was in Nepal to spend the 1997 Chinese Spring Festival on the magical roof of the world. It is so close to the sky, I seem to be able to look at the moon in the crystal night sky by stepping on a ladder, and I can pick a star in the Milky Way and put it in the room to watch.

With the shock of the invincible Himalayas, the most original wildlife sanctuary in Asia, charming mountain villages and mysterious folk customs, shining temples, wild hiking routes, rafting, rock climbing, bungee jumping, gliding, skydiving…..making Nepal the most mysterious tourist paradise in the world.

This mysterious place of Nepal, you, are worth exploring!

The Invincible Himalayas
On the first day of the Lunar New Year in 1997, the sun was shining brightly and the sky was cloudless. The three of us rented a luxury hotel with a view in Nagarkot. Of course, the rooms here, especially the terrace, have the best viewing point, and the waiter was always ready to deliver beer, cold milk, coffee and chilled apples. Most of us diplomats went to a simple and free viewing site which was a rough platform randomly pieced together with logs with dead bark, broken branches and leaves next to each other. I stood on the primitive dead wood with bark and looked at the peaks in the sky, as if a primitive man who had just come out of the cave was searching for the vitality in the distance.

Wow! At a glance, I saw 17 ice peaks above 7,000 meters, including Mt. Qomolangma and those 8,000m above sea level. They were in a row and well arranged. I could clearly see and count 17 of them one by one from west to east. Under the bright winter sun, in the blue sky, there is silver light shining!

At one glance, I saw 17 ice peaks above 7,000 meters above sea level in 8 main veins of the Himalaya. I could clearly see them one by one from west to east and counted all 17 of them in the bright winter sun, the blue sky, shining silver!

I saw: the western most is Dhaulagiri, 8167 meters above sea level; the eastern most is Kanchenjunga, 8568 meters above sea level. From west to east in the middle are: Everest, 8844.43 meters above sea level; G.H peak, 7406 meters above sea level; L.L peak, 7227 meters above sea level; Shishapangma, 8012 meters above sea level; D.L peak, 6996 meters above sea level; 7134 meters….

Only then did I know what majesty and grandeur is! What is worthy of being upright and unshakable! What are the Alps, compared with the Himalayas, they are a piece of cake, just a small clay ball!

Nagarkot was the only place in the world where we can see all 17 peaks above 7000 meters above sea level, including several peaks above 8000 meters above sea level! There is no second such majestic spectacle in the world! Nothing in the world can match the Himalayas! The Himalayas are invincible in the world!

My whole body and mind were in shock by the sight! Eyes filled with tears! I froze there, my whole body was numb from the cold, I was unconscious, like a living sculpture… This was the most unforgettable New Year’s Day in my life! I spent time beside 17 ice peaks in the Himalayas above 7,000 meters above sea level!

Chitwan, the last hiding place of the Bengal tiger
I have seen Bengal tigers twice in Dhaka Zoo during my work in Bangladesh and they are truly beautiful! It was much larger in size than the Siberian tiger I saw seen in China and the Sumatran tiger in Indonesia. When sitting, walking, squatting, jumping and running, it always shows an inviolable and insuperable king style. How majestic!

On the second day of the Chinese Lunar New Year in 1997, the three of us descended from Nagarkot, which was several thousand meters above sea level, to Chitwan, which is 150 meters above sea level, and rode elephants through Chitwan. This elephant was huge! A square rough wooden plank is carried on the elephant’s back, and an adult tourist (who can hold a child) sits at each corner of the square plank, and the four wooden stakes at the four corners are regarded as safety protection. Local guides lead the way on elephant trunks while it carries at least 5 people.

The three of us sat in one corner, and in the other corner sat a middle school student from Australia who was here on summer vacation as a volunteer for wildlife protection. This was the first time I heard that there was such a position as a “volunteer”, which is very strange! Many years after returning to China, various volunteer services in China emerged. It turns out that “volunteers” are like coffee, which is also a foreign product.

In Chitwan, I met more than a dozen volunteers from Europe, America and Australia. They were all college students in their teens and twenties, both boys and girls. They voluntarily assisted local tour guides and preached the protection of wild animals. This Australian boy who rode the elephant with us enthusiastically talked to us all the way!

The 5 of us rode the elephant, crossing forests and swamps, crossing grasslands and streams, cutting through thorns and bushes all the way, moving forward steadily. Elephants walk very slowly, one step at a time, safe and solid. We mostly walk through the Sal forest. It is common to see broken tree trunks and their residual branches lying on streams or water beaches in the woods. The elephant steadily carried the five of us across the large pastures.

We crossed many streams, pools and lakes along the way, all of which are snow water melted from Himalayan snow mountains and filtered by geological rocks. The water was clear to the bottom, the water temperature is cold, and it is very refreshing.

Here, there are 68 kinds of mammals, 544 kinds of birds, and 67 kinds of butterflies, such as rhinos, tigers, deer, monkeys, elephants, leopards, sloth bears, wild boars, and jackals. I saw some large specimens of local butterflies which were as large as a human palm.

Along the way, milder animals such as yellow muntjac, sika deer, hog deer, sambar, wild boar, and bison appeared from afar from time to time. But most of the animals saw the tour guide sitting on the elephant trunk waving knives and guns for the safety of tourists, so they shrank their heads and hid behind the trees to peep, not daring to approach. Behind the tree trunk, a pair of beautiful, curious, and timid eyes were exposed. Some of them boldly flash out of the tree trunk to find out, eager to try, and carefully step forward to beg for food, very cute! I waited to throw all the food far away (for safety, I had to throw it far away), and one by one rushed out to fight for each other. That day, what I saw were monkeys.

Didn’t see any ferocious beasts like wolves, leopards, bears, rhinos, and certainly not a Bengal tiger!

On the second day of the Chinese Lunar New Year in 1997, I rode on the back of an elephant, crossed Chitwan, the largest wildlife sanctuary in Asia. This was the most memorable time in my life. The second day of the new year!

Nothing is trivial in diplomacy
During my stay in Nepal, it happened that the local travel agency arranged a very rare Kashmir (Kashmir) tour, and many explorers and tourists from Europe, America, Australia, Japan and South Korea had signed up.

Kashmir, located in the northern part of the South Asian subcontinent, is the transition zone between the western end of China’s Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and northern South Asia. It borders China to the east, India to the south, and Afghanistan to the north. The terrain is mainly plateaus and mountains. The K2 at the border between Pakistan and China is located here. This mountain is 8611 meters above sea level and is the second highest peak in the world. In fact, Kashmir is at the western end of Nepal, in a canyon at the westernmost end of the Himalayas. The soil here is fertile, the water and grass are fertile, and it is the most ideal habitat for Kashmir goats. The pure wool products made of Kashmir cashmere are the best cashmere products in the world, and have a special international trademark, which is called ” Kāisīmǐ”(开司米) in my country.

Back in the 1950s, I knew “cashmere” was the best sweater. At that time, it was the Sino-Soviet honeymoon period, and my country only had a small amount of trade with the Soviet Union and a few countries in the socialist camp in Eastern Europe. One year, a batch of Soviet calico, sweaters and Czechoslovak glass products were imported and sold among senior military cadres. The wives of the high – ranking men who have long been hard – working and simple were lucky to buy these foreign goods from the Soviet East. My mother also bought 2 pieces of Soviet cloth and a green open-necked cashmere sweater, which was really beautiful and I still have it. Mom also bought 2 pieces of Soviet floral cloth and 1 green cashmere sweater with open lapels. They were indeed very beautiful and are still there. From then on, I know that “cashmere” is a good sweater. After I went to college, I learned that ” Kāisīmǐ”(开司米) ” is the Chinese transliteration of Kashmir cashmere. This kind of cashmere is produced in Kashmir and is the highest quality cashmere.

I know very well that domestic tour groups will never go to this kind of place. I really want to go! But at that time, I was the first secretary of the Chinese embassy in Bangladesh. Everywhere I went in Nepal, I had to ask for instructions and report for approval. After the Spring Festival, I had to return to Bangladesh to work immediately. Premier Zhou’s “nothing is trivial in diplomacy” must always be kept in mind! I believe that the scenery of Kashmir is unique in the world, so I resolutely gave up this time.

There are fakes all over the world
Nepal has the unrivaled Himalayas, the largest wildlife sanctuary in Asia, where the snow-capped mountains are winding, forests and swamps, green leaves, snow-water streams, quiet lakes and beautiful natural scenery. It is one of the few undeveloped and original ecological countries in the world.

At the same time, the founder of Buddhism, Sakyamuni, was born in Nepal. This is a magical country where humans and gods live together, where mountains and rivers are gods.

Even after several major earthquakes, Nepal is still the carrier of the culture of the Himalayas: Kathmandu Valley is home to unparalleled world-class palaces, various magnificent temples built in the Middle Ages hidden in the streets, exquisite temple art, towering into the sky. The pagodas of the clouds… Strolling through the old town of Kathmandu, these ancient buildings abound.

On the third day of the Lunar New Year in 1997, I visited Kathmandu, focused on the old city, and then visited the local “bazaar” (market). I saw two thick woolen shawls with the trademark “Kashmir”. The owner said they were produced in Kashmir and urged me to buy it immediately. In fact, a few years ago in Europe, I bought two Italian shawls, just because the shawls were beautiful dark olive green, and Italy is famous all over the world for its rich olives and high-quality olive oil. Just before I went to Nepal, I just bought 2 Bangladeshi hemp shawls, not for anything else but because Bangladesh is the world’s number one producer and exporter of hemp. And this time I bought a Nepali shawl just because it was produced in Kashmir, a place I want to go but will never be able to go in my life. In fact, I know that these six shawls are not needed when I go back to China! Regardless, I bought another one at an exhibition in the Beijing Agricultural Exhibition Hall in 2018, just because I liked it.

After buying the shawl, I saw a dagger (short sword) at a stall. The stall owner said it was used by the ancient Nepali people for self-defense in the Middle Ages. I liked it very much and bought it right away. I bought other miscellaneous things, and spent all the salary of the month (the salary of Chinese diplomats is lower than that of other countries. I was paid 1028 US dollars in cash at the beginning of each month).

After returning to Bangladesh, I found that I bought a lot of fake products. The dagger was entrusted to a Chinese who was returning home and delivered to my parents with a letter. Parents put it in the study cabinet after reading the letter. When I went back to China for vacation, I saw that everything was rusted, the steamed buns could not be cut, and the wooden frame was cracked and fell apart. It turns out that there are fakes in the market all over the world! On the third day of the Lunar New Year, I was greatly deceived!

Waiting for the wind to come [2]
On the fourth day of the Lunar New Year, the tour guide took us to see a Nepali folk custom. We climbed a small hill, and there were lively monkeys all over the way, blocking and robbing all passers-by, without any hesitation! I was afraid that they would catch me, so I didn’t dare to refuse, so I had no choice but to submit obediently, and let the monkey pick out my pockets, turn over my bag, and stretch my body skillfully, until the monkey took out everything!

Climbing to the top of the hill, you can see a river meandering at the foot of the hill, and a quiet village on the opposite bank. On the river bank, there were more than a dozen tall empty iron frames erected in sequence at equal distances. The bottom was large and the top is small. Lying upright was a living person! I was very surprised, and asked why an adult living person was lying on the top of the shelf? The tour guide explained: It was a relative of a family in the village who had recently passed away and was going to be burned. I was shocked! If you looked closely, you could see that there was a dead person lying on the top of each elevated shelf. Take a closer look, and you can see that men, women, old and young people under each empty iron frame. The tour guide said that it was the relatives of the deceased, who were going to attend the funeral, and they were “waiting for the wind to come”!

“Waiting for the wind to come!” I heard for the first time that the wind will come when you are happy, but will not come when you are not happy? Do you need to wait? I was even more surprised and didn’t dare to ask more questions! Only then did I feel that the air seemed to be solidified, and there was really no breeze at all. Since everyone is waiting for the wind, then I will also follow suit.

I don’t know how long it took, and suddenly a melodious breeze that soaked the heart came from the east, and drifted away along the river from east to west.

Someone yelled loudly, the big drum started beating, and the instrumental music blared together. At the same time, the flames suddenly lit up under the ten iron frames, and they rushed to the top of the frames. I clearly saw that the dead on the top of the rack was instantly surrounded by raging fire and burned like a barbecue stick! Under the fire frame, relatives of the deceased wailed and sang loudly to the sound of drums, and moved around the fire. Sometimes shouting something, sometimes chanting words billowed, leading the dead to go west with the east wind and ascend to heaven.

After a while, the dead person on the top of the iron frame disappeared, and the flame was also extinguished. The wind gradually subsided, the iron frame, the beach, the river, the village, the villagers…everything returned to normal, under the blowing of the pure east wind, even the air was much fresher, everything seemed as if nothing had happened. The dead are gone, the living continue.

The next day, I ended my short trip in Nepal and returned to Bangladesh. I spent a unique and unforgettable Chinese New Year in a foreign country.

I believe that Nepal, one of the least developed countries in the world, is poor and backward, has the natural beauty that the earth favors, and will definitely wait for the refreshing and strong east wind to make the country prosperous, strong, and even better!

Notes: 1. Zhao Zhongxiang (赵忠祥)(1942-2020) was a renowned Chinese news anchor and hosted the annual CCTV New Year’s Gala.

2. Waiting for the wind to come (等风来)- phrase used to refers to the impetuous society, fast pace of life where we tend to forget our original intention and pursuit, quietly waiting for things to change.